Glenn Allen Howard – Introduction
The Robins – Riot in Cell Block #9 (1954)
Screamin’ Jay Hawkins – I Put a Spell on You (1966)
Bop It – Roscoe Gordon and the 5 Red Caps (1957)
Ruth Brown – Mama, He Treats Your Daughter Mean (1955)
Big Joe Turner – Shake, Rattle & Roll (1955)
The Coasters – Searchin’ (1957)
Bobby Day – Rockin’ Robin (1957)
Wilbert Harrison – Stagger Lee (c.1959)
Since the Ur-liest days of rock ‘n’ roll—also known as the era of the blackface minstrels (1841-1939 or 2000 if you count Spike Lee’s ‘Bamboozled’)—there have always been white folks that wanted to get down with black music and culture. Sometimes it was by ‘blacking up’ with burnt cork a la Al Jolson and Eddie Cantor and later by hangin’ out in Harlem and livin’ like de black folks do a la Mezz Mezzrow, the early Jewish jazz clarinet-kitty that was also the ‘go to’ cat to score the most righteous weed in the greater uptown area. You should really really read ‘Really the Blues,’ his book, if you want to learn about hip culture.
One of the all time best examples ever to come blazin’ a path through the R & B world was Johnny Otis, a Greek-American Vallejo-born daddy-o who wanted to be black – and pretty much succeeded in passing. He laid down some bad R & B from the get go (‘Harlem Nocturne’) about the same time as the Enola Gay made its bombsight-seeing tour of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. In WWII ration-speak, ‘Was this trip really necessary? ‘
Otis soon settled in Watts, opened a Club, and in short order managed to discover Little Esther, the Robins (who later became the Coasters), Big Jay McNeeley, Etta James, Little Willie John, Hank Ballard & the Midnighters, and Jackie Wilson – as well as producing Big Mama Willie Mae Thorton’s original version of ‘Hound Dog.’ Elvis heard Freddie Bell and the Bellboys’ pop-novelty cover version in Vegas and decided to record it himself. I’ve always assumed that Elvis would have heard her original and maybe the Jack Turner country version on RCA, being a country and an R & B cat.
In 1994, the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame inducted Otis as a NON-PERFORMER, ‘for his work as a songwriter and producer for Elvis Presley.’ This consisted mainly of ‘cleaning up’ the lyrics for a more mainstream ‘Pat Booneish-boorish’ 1956 pop audience. What a bogus thing to celebrate, even if Elvis still made the ‘Clean American’ lyrics sound somewhat suggestive. The original words probably would have garnered zero airplay and this since the producer (s) thought it would help RCA get the big sales they wanted for the $35K they had to kick down to Sam Phillips for Presley’s contract. For Johnny’s trouble, a court decision removed him from his co-writing credit and of course, the rainbarrels of royalties that he should have received for Elvis’ biggest record of all time. Maybe they just assumed Johnny was black, so it was standard operating procedure.
One story goes that he was producing this Elvis track but had to give it up because Lieber & Stoller needed him to play the drums, which left only them to take over the production. Another story is that it was Elvis who produced it himself. Elvis has writing credits on songs, too. AS IF! RCA says it was produced by Steve Sholes and I believe it was Sholes, since he was a company man who had less R & B taste and no rock ‘n’ roll credibility whatsoever. It was the first time the pop-gospel quartet The Jordanaires were used (singing simple block chords) which just happened to tone Elvis down a few notches, and functioned like the blatant sweetening and pandering for the mainstream pop audience that it was already the beginning of the end.
Since most of Johnny’s work did NOT make the pop (white) ‘top 40,’ only ‘Willie and the Hand Jive,’ which went to Billboard #9 in 1958, would have made him ‘eligible’ as a performer for Cleveland’s R n R Hall of Fame. (One has to have made the Pop-Tart 40 at least 25 years before the nomination date).
My take on Elvis was that he had a brilliant start at Sun records, then lost one of his balls when he signed with RCA and then lost the other one when the evil non-Colonel ‘Alias Tom Parker’ pushed his unwilling boy into the Army when some of the old payola would have fixed it all as easy as pie.
Presley broke my widdle grade school heart when he came out of the Army singing with the likes of Sinatra and doing pop tunes instead of rock ‘n’ roll. I knew even as a dumb kid that ‘It’s Now or Never’ was a rewrite of Caruso’s ‘O Sole Mio’ and wasn’t no kind of rock ‘n’ roll. He could have been a singing James Dean – you can see the potential in three of his first four films, ‘Jailhouse Rock,’ ‘Loving You’ and ‘King Creole.’
I don’t buy that he was the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll, either. I give that to Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis and Gene Vincent Elvis was easily the best teen idol, and I’ll give you that he made some great pop-rock records and was a serious contender till they cut his hair off. I even like some of the early 60s schlock like ‘I Can’t Help Fallin’ in Love With You.’ But nothin’ is going to convince me that was rock ‘n’ roll.
Johnny Otis gets an AMHF Award for his records in general, his songs, and all his discoveries and a FULL PARDON for toning down the original lyrics of ‘Hound Dog’ to please the old geezers at RCA. Presley might have lasted a little longer if the original raw lyrics had been used and it probably would have been even a bigger hit since the kids were already searching for something sexier than the major labels were willing to serve up. With absolutely no airplay, ‘Sixty Minute Man’ and ‘Work with Me Annie,’ ‘Annie Had a Baby,’ ‘Sexy Ways’ and ‘Roll With Me, Henry’ sold a million each to most of the same white kids that were going to be buying Elvis’ post-‘Heartbreak Hotel’ records. They probably would have tripled their sales at least if they’d let him sing it down and dirty. Elvis singing it to a Bassett Hound on TV was more beginning of the end ‘He coulda been a contender!
Johnny Otis – Willie and the Hand Jive (1958)
with potty-trained choreography and randumb TV dancers not doing the hand jive.
Lloyd Price – Personality (1959)
Little Anthony and the Imperials – I’m Alright (1959)
Ike and Tina Turner – I Can’t Believe What You Say (1964)
Tina Turner – A Fool in Love (mid-1960s)
Ike & Tina Turner – A Fool in Love; It’s Gonna Work Out fine (1966)
Ronettes – Be My Baby; Shout! (1965)
Billy Stewart – Summertime (1966)