Generally Eclectic Review

Reviews of book on music - all sorts. Feel free to share your comments, criticisms, and replies with my readers!

Location: Fredonia, New York, United States

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Saturday, October 09, 2010

"Eleven Unsung Heroes of Early Rock & Roll” by Dick Stewart (Lance Monthly Press)

Publishers, and for that matter, authors, can be a fairly conservative lot when it comes to choosing which rock-oriented books find their way onto the market. It’s not surprising that the 40th anniversary of Jimi Hendrix is considered a milestone, leading to a plethora of books on The Man. Likewise, there are a number of books appearing about John Lennon, the Beatles, and yes, Paul McCartney, timed at least in part to coincide with what would have been Lennon’s 70th birthday. Do we really need new books about Bob Dylan or Elvis Presley? - well, the list goes on.

This is why I am so pleased whenever I see lesser-known artists representing various levels of commercial achievement making rare appearances on the nation’s book shelves. Currently awaiting review are books about the under-rated 60’s psychedelic band Arthur Lee and Love, traditional New Orleans jazz clarinetist George Lewis, pioneer folk singer John Jacob Niles, among others. To be sure, we have their records to remember them by, we have magazine articles and websites devoted to their accomplishments, but there is a permanence associated with having one’s life story enshrined within the covers of a book that goes beyond more ephemeral forms of documentation.. (Don’t get me started about the so-called ‘death of the printed word”! As anyone with a collection of files on floppy disks can tell you, there may be very little permanence associated with cyberspace.)

And this is why I am so pleased to see a book devoted to some of the less widely-known names associated with rock’n’roll in the pre-Beatles era. (To be sure, a few of the people covered in Dick Stewart’s book had careers which extended beyond the British invasion.) The book’s subtitle is “Historic Contributions by Artists You Never Heard Of”. There are actually only two artists here whom I’ve never heard of, - Robert Kelly and Clyde Hankins; see below. Indeed, a few of the eleven men (there are no women included, but for that you should blame history more than the author) had major hits. Even so, I dare say that the average, non-specialist reader would likely find most, possibly all, of the names in this book to be unknown quantities, even when familiar with a few of the records they appeared on.

Stewart, a former surf guitarist who hails from New Mexico, is especially fond of the rock’n’roll scene of West Texas and his home state, which accounts in part for a preponderance of artists who recorded for (and were in some way or another victimized by) the great Clovis, NM-based producer Norman Petty, who often treated his young artists more as servants than budding professionals.. Buddy Holly and, to a far lesser extent, Buddy Knox have dominated the discussions of the Petty studio to such an extent that it is sometimes forgotten that Petty also was a major purveyor of the guitar-instrumental variety of rock’n’roll. The book devotes a chapter each to lead guitarist George Tomsco of the Fireballs, and Jimmy Torres and Keith McCormack of the String-a-Longs.

The Fireballs first attracted national attention in 1959 with their pre-Ventures guitar instrumental “Torquay”, followed closely by “Bulldog”. It’s worth noting that it was Petty who encouraged the group to stick to recording instrumentals in their early days, and likewise encouraged them to focus on vocals later in their career. Though the band had a #1 hit with ”Sugar Shack” in 1963, many people don’t realize that this record and their last hit, “Bottle of Wine”, in 1968, was the same Fireballs band that did the instrumental hits, since Petty put singer Jimmy Gilmer’s name front and center on the label of the “Sugar Shack” 45. (By the way, “Bottle of Wine” is not an “old Irish pub” song, but was written in the 1960’s by Tom Paxton.) As a result, Tomsco became something of a forgotten man among rock historians.

The String-a-Longs’ career was more short-lived, but they also had a gigantic hit in 1961’s “Wheels”, with its distinctive four-guitar texture (lead, rhythm, bass, and an “extra” guitar which played a mixture of rhythm, harmony, and counterpoint) and a drummer who played on a cardboard box (again, Petty’s idea). Stewart’s interview with lead guitarist Torres is especially insightful, as he discusses the problems of being a Hispanic kid in West Texas, as well as his atypical background in classical and band music. It turns out that McCormack was involved with both bands, as the String-a-Longs’ rhythm guitarist and as the co-writer of “Sugar Shack”.

The Norman Petty connection is featured in three other chapters. Sonny Curtis, who was born without a first name, had played with the original Crickets, and later re-joined them in their post-Holly career. He is best known, however, as a songwriter, who wrote the Everly Brothers’”Walk Right Back”; “I Fought the Law”, which became a hit in the cover version by the Bobby Fuller Four”; and the theme for television’s “Mary Tyler Moore Show”. Sonny West wrote “Oh Boy” and “Rave On”, hoping to use them to establish his own recording career, but Petty assigned them to Buddy Holly instead. (To be sure, there is no guarantee West’s own versions would have had anywhere near the impact of Holly’s versions.) Drummer Carl Bunch was the drummer on Buddy Holly’s fateful last tour, and supplies a great deal of perspective on how and why Holly split with the Crickets (once again, Petty’s interference seems to have been crucial), and the unfortunate circumstances of that last tour, leading up to the fatal plane ride.

The first chapter of the book is devoted to Jack Ely, whose voice (though rarely his name) is familiar to untold millions, as the singer on the Kingsmen’s perennial “Louie Louie”. I doubt anyone at this late date still believes the old fib about the song having dirty lyrics, which Ely slurred so people would have difficulty understanding them. (That story never made sense to me from the outset. What would be the purpose of singing naughty lyrics if no one can understand them?). Instead Ely tells of a microphone placed up so high that he had to extend his neck and shout to be heard over the rest of the band, in this pre-multi-track recording session. Ironically, the Kingsmen had been known as a clean, Christian band prior to this controversy.

Fans of the late-period (mid-to-late 60’s) guitar instrumental band, Davie Allan and the Arrows (whose “Apache ‘65” and “Blues Theme” are both high on my personal playlist), will be frustrated when they read what Allan considers to be the reasons why the band was so poorly promoted. There is also a fascinating portrait of the late keyboardist/bass player Larry Knechtel, best known for his work as a session musician (he’s the pianist on “Bridge Over Troubled Water”) and as a member of both Duane Eddy’s Rebels and Bread. In one sense, Knechtel probably doesn’t deserve a spot in this book, considering the disdain he seems to have held for most rock’n’roll and surf music. However, his insights into the life and requirements of a top-level studio player are well worth reading.

The two artists I had not encountered before reading this book both have interesting stories to tell. Robert Kelly is a perfect example of a hard-luck musician who eventually caught a break. In his early career, he was pretty much a struggling small-timer whose fight for survival led him into contact with no less a historical figure than sleazeball-nightclub-owner turned assassin Jack Ruby. Kelly eventually found success - though not necessarily fame - as leader of a Vegas showband called the Expressions. The other unfamiliar figure, Clyde Hankins, was a guitarist during the big band era, whose claim to rock’n’roll status comes not from his own playing, but from his role as teacher/mentor to a number of the Petty-associated West Texas guitarists, including Buddy Holly and Sonny Curtis. One could quibble over whether Kelly and Hankins deserve to be considered rock’n’roll heroes, but they’re worth reading about, in any event.

Author Stewart hints that a second volume of unsung heroes may be forthcoming. I for one look forward to it, and hope this book sells well enough to make that possibility a reality. For more information, head to


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