Unsung Heroes of rock n roll (on film)

This is one of the most significant books of our time. In the 21st century society of the spectacle where a shy Scots woman goes on a talent show and is instantly SuBo (not a Korean noodle); where Ms Germanotta wrestles the fame monster to the ground and declares victory in record time; and where, never let us forget, California elected the Governator, Nick Tosches has given us an Ur text of rock n roll stardom in the era preceding rock n roll. “Bill Haley wrote the whole script two years before anyone had heard of rock n roll”.

In the inter war years the USA was easily the most developed industrial nation and consumer goods such as cars and radios were more widely distributed than anywhere else. Those who avoided the Depression had a little cash available for a good time and entertainers leapt up to meet the demand. Not only was the USA the most affluent nation on earth but it also had a number of different cultures and musical traditions within its borders and migrant communities. A particularly fertile musical melting pot entertainingly documented by the Coen brothers in O Brother where are thou? was the lower Mississippi region. The ‘Melting Pot’ remains a valid concept when considering the birth of rock n roll. Delta blues, New Orleans jazz, zydeco, hillbilly music, gospel, big band swing and Tin Pan Alley as well as a variety of ethnic musics all formed the musical background of the 1940’s.

Bands played all those styles to anyone who would listen, and they were happy to borrow ideas from their neighbours – so the whites covered black R n B songs and the blacks covered country songs. The thing was:  none of them had any idea what they were doing at the time. A few of them were drunk or stoned most of the time as they travelled about playing music. They were trying to turn a buck by playing music that people liked. Then, if they were popular, they might make and sell a few records, but there wasn’t usually much money in that. They might even make a few appearances in movies, but there wasn’t necessarily a lot of money in that either. In order to make a living they had to, after Big Joe Turner, get out on that stage and rattle those pots and pans.  Tosches conclusion about the motivation for musicians ‘inventing’ rock n roll: “Nothing will bring together a white man and a black man quicker than the prospect of a dollar bill.”

Nick Tosches originally wrote these pieces for rock magazines in the 70s and 80s. He was able to talk with many of the artists he profiled and those who worked with them. Many of them were fairly mercurial characters with healthy egos and a strong sense of their own importance. Substance abuse claimed a few along the way, some came and went in the blink of an eye, and the odd few seemed to lead normal lives as working musicians. The more things change …

When he was writing these pieces the music of the 40s and 50s had just about vanished from the popular consciousness of anyone under 50. Much of it was obscure to begin with, issued only on local labels and played on a limited range of radio stations. Additionally, the music suffered from being technologically trumped almost at birth as much of it was recorded on heavy old 78s just before the smaller and more sophisticated 33s and 45s became the dominant form of recorded music, played on different record players. Equally, once the electric guitar became the dominant instrument in the smaller rock n roll bands, the brass or piano based instrumentation favoured by many of the Unsung Heroes led to their music being ignored and dismissed as anachronistic.   

Tosches catalogued the stories of some of these crazy cats from the time before the mechanisation of fame but actually listening to the music was something only the dedicated aficionado could accomplish. The 1991 edition of Unsung Heroes lists the original 78s and then catalogues the work of the dedicated archivists who sought to bring the music to modern ears on vinyl and CD compilations. A major hero of the archaeology project was a Swedish fan, Jonas Bernholm, who reissued lots of obscure American artists from the 1940s and 1950s on Route 66 records. Even more remarkable, he paid royalties to the artists, which may have come as a bit of a shock to them after all those years of being ripped off.

These days older ‘popular’music is easier to find on CD compilations such as Jumpin’ Like Mad and the Theme Time Radio Hour CDs of disc jockey extraordinaire Bob Dylan. If Dylan wasn’t already famous for his songwriting and musical talents, these CDs would ensure his place in the pantheon of musical archivists who have helped to bring previously obscure music before the public.  

Tosches work has been worthily extended by Morgan Wright at www.hoyhoy.com which is a site dedicated to cataloguing the video remnants of these bygone eras. He tips his hat to Tosches as a major inspiration and also to Jonas Bernholm. He has found old TV performances, film clips from the movies, and one reel performances played on video jukeboxes with which to entertain us, as well as some occasional raw live footage. The name Hoy Hoy derives from an exclamation which turned up in popular songs in the late 40s and then promptly vanished.  

Not all of the Unsung Heroes made it on to film and Wright has found some additional artists from the era. His main criteria for inclusion is that it should be a hard rockin’ tune from the decade before Elvis, so some worthy artists without serious rock n roll cred miss out. There are a couple of absolute classics on HoyHoy which simply must be checked out.

Harry the Hipster Gibson was channelling Jerry Lee Lewis in 1944 prior to having his musical career terminated with extreme prejudice for wondering Who put the Benzedrine in Mrs Murphy’s Ovaltine? in 1947. Drug addled rocker corrupts the young, nine years before Elvis!

The Treniers deliver an absolute standout performance on the Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis Show in May 1954, the first time rock n roll had been seen on national US television. The Treniers show why they had a live act that lasted over 50 years and also why Jerry Lewis kept using them as a support act. Martin and Lewis both get unashamedly into the Treniers performance.   

There are some late period performances from Big Joe Turner which are both classic rock n roll and compelling visual evidence of why he didn’t translate too well into the white teenage rock n roll market a few years later. But Joe had been rattling those pots n pans in an entertaining way since the mid 1930s, before first becoming famous at the Spirituals to Swing show in 1938.   

Very few of the artists who made the music that became rock n roll became stars in the post Elvis market. Many were too old, too fat, too black or too hillbilly to appeal to teenagers but we should be grateful for their efforts in their prime and for the efforts of the music fans who preserved their stories and their music. Hoy hoy!


About Greg

Middle aged male, resident at the finest of all latitudes, 37. Reputedly an indoor cricketer.
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