Category Archives: US pop songs

Music at an Art Fair that became a Festival

It’s Monday 18th August 1969 and the legendary Woodstock Music Festival – actually named as the ‘Woodstock Music & Art Fair’ – has come to an end.  Scheduled to run for three days on a New York dairy farm it has actually run for four and attracted an audience of more than 400,000 people – some with tickets – some without – with traffic jams for miles in every direction!

During a sometimes rainy weekend over 30 acts performed outdoors including the likes of Janis Joplin, Joan Baez, The Who, Jimi Hendrix and Ravi Shankar.

The whole event then symbolized the 60s era of flower power; hippies; peace & love; marijuana and protests about the Vietnam War that is happening the other side of the world.  That ‘feeling’ remains still today to those that went to the Fair and those that wished that they had.

The newspapers of the day referred to the event as days and nights of ‘sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll’.  Later it was widely regarded as a pivotal moment in popular music history.  This year – 2017 – the festival site has been listed on the US National Register of Historic Places.

 

We can ‘Rock Around the Clock’ BEFORE the USA!

It was on this day – Monday 12th April 1954 – that Bill Haley and the Comets recorded ‘Rock Around the Clock’.  It was a song written by Max Freedman and Jimmy Deknight. Bill Haley recorded it at the Decca studios. It wasn’t the first rock’n’roll song, and Bill Haley wasn’t the first to record it. But somehow his version caught the mood of the moment. It is considered to be the song that brought rock and roll into mainstream culture all over the world. The song went to Number One in the UK and USA, and it was Bill Haley’s biggest hit.  Many fans consider this band to be as revolutionary as the Beatles and the Rolling Stones and they were most certainly the earliest group of white musicians to bring rock and roll to the attention of America and the rest of the world.

Bill had left Essex Records in the spring of 1954 and signed for Decca and the band’s first recording session was set for April 12, 1954 at the Pythian Temple studios in New York City. The recording session almost failed to take place because the band was traveling on a ferry that got stuck on a sandbar on the way to New York from Philadelphia. Once at the studio, producer Milt Gabler insisted that the band work on a song entitled “Thirteen Women (and Only One Man in Town)” that he wanted to promote as the A-side on the group’s first Decca single.  Near the end of the session, the band finally recorded a take of “Rock Around the Clock” but Bill’s vocals were drowned out by the band. A quick second take was made with minimal accompaniment.  Why the ‘minimal?’ – Sammy Davis Jr was waiting outside the studio for his turn behind the mike!

It is said that the Decca engineers later combined the two versions together into one version but Johnny Grande, the Comets piano player, tells a slightly different version, claiming that the only reason a second take was recorded was that the drummer made an error!

Whatever is the truth – ‘Rock’ took the lead with the ‘Thirteen Women’ on the flip side and ‘Rock around the Clock’ became the first of the group’s nine singles in the Top 20 between then and 1956.

Many musicians have claimed that they performed on the recording session for “Rock Around the Clock” but, according to the official record sheet from the session, the musicians on the famous recording were:  Bill Haley on vocals and rhythm guitar; Marshall Lyle on string bass; Franny Beecher on guitar; Joey Ambrose [aka Joey D’Ambrosio] on tenor saxophone; Billy Williamson on steel guitar; Johnny Grande on piano; Billy Gussak on drums and Danny Cedrone on electric guitar.

It was on Friday 9th July 1955 that “Rock Around the Clock” became the first rock and roll recording to hit the top of the US Billboard’s Pop charts, a feat it repeated on charts around the world.  On Billboard the song stayed at the top for eight weeks.

However – in the UK the record was released on Brunswick Records and reached number 17 on the UK Singles Chart in January 1955 – four months before it first entered the US pop charts!  This wasn’t the only entry it had in the UK because it re-entered the UK chart and hit number one in November 1955 for three weeks, dropped off the top for three weeks and then returned to the top for another two weeks in January 1956.  It made another re-entry in September 1956, reaching number 5. The track was re-issued in 1968 and made number 20, and again in 1974, when it reached number 12. The song’s original release saw it become the UK’s first million selling single and it went on to sell over 1.4 million copies in total!

My box of records

‘Do you really need to keep this box with all these records?’  The challenge so many of a certain age dread.

‘Of course I do.  They will be worth money in years to come.’  It’s a standard answer, but it cuts little ice.  Perhaps I should give the real reason – my teenage years are kept safe in this box.  Well, actually there are some other boxes around as well.  All full with 45rpm singles and EPs and LPs – oh – and some 78s!

Flipping through the contents the memories come flooding back.

There are all Elvis’ HMV releases here – starting with the May 1956 release of ‘Heartbreak Hotel’.  Also here is the HMV 10” compilation LP that describes it as ‘that blues tinged opus in agony’.  For me these are still ‘real’ Elvis.

Matching these are the full set of singles from Buddy Holly and the Crickets – starting with ‘That’ll be the day’, the distinctive black Coral label with the push-out triangular centre still there – now held in place by some ancient white glue.

There’s Lonnie Donegan’s Decca EP, released while he was still with Chris Barber’s Jazz Band.  While the band had a break, Donegan and two/three of the band had jammed in a folksy style that leant on American Blues.  ‘Digging my Potatoes’ is typical of this cross-over and, as far as I can remember, was banned by the BBC because of its double entendre!  It was through these breaks that Skiffle was born – and Lonnie Donegan was the name that everyone remembered.

However – there are others here in my memory box.  Nancy Whiskey – the only female vocalist to make a break through – fronting Chas McDevitt’s skiffle group with ‘Freight Train’; Wally Wyton – later to become a fixture on the radio – and the Vipers with ‘Don’t You Rock Me Daddy-O’ and ‘Streamline Train’.  Donegan had the bigger hit with ‘Daddy-O’ but I preferred the Vipers’ version.

The track, though, that made Donegan’s name was the US Country style ‘Rock Island Line’ that was released by Decca Records in January 1956.  While it made Donegan’s name it did not make him his fortune.  He was paid a flat recording fee – I believe it was £25!  The track was also released in the US – and it made the charts there as well.

There was, perhaps, another – unexpected – step in the popular success of ‘Rock Island Line’ and Lonnie Donegan himself; and that was a US funny man called Stan Freberg.  He’s in my box as well – well actually twice.  I have two disks with Stan’s fantastic version of ‘Rock Island Line’.  On the other side of one – the US version – is a take on Harry Belafonte’s ‘Banana Boat Song’.  The ‘British’ disc has Lonnie on one side but he has to put up with a take on Mr Presley’s ‘Heartbreak Hotel’.  What a mix!

I think this is enough for today.  We’ll have another dip in my Records Box same day next week.

However – were you of this era?  Are my memories the same as yours?  If you & they are – why not let me know?

You can post your memories here or to my e-mail address of talkinghistory@msn.com