Tag Archives: Rock and Roll

The Appalachian Roots of Rock and Roll

Rock and roll has always been a primal, unschooled, uncouth musical form. Its iconic imagery – Elvis in his two-tone jacket and baggy trousers, pivoting his hips, a guitar whipping around his waist; Jerry Lee, mop of hair flopping in time as he pummels a piano in a demonic frenzy – communicates, almost more than the sounds of that earlier era, which may now sound tame to our ears, the wildness at its core. This wildness is often attributed to the influence deep southern blues on the white rock and roll singers mentioned above, but two characters whose creations helped define the wild identity of rock and roll at its inception have Southern Appalachian roots. Born (probably) a year apart and growing up only 40 miles from one another, Roy Hall and Stick McGhee were responsible for two seminal moments in the development of rock and roll music: arguably the first “rock and roll” recording — McGhee’s “Drinkin’ Wine Spo-Dee-O-Dee” — and Hall’s co-writing of “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On.”

Details of the early life of Granville “Stick” (or “Sticks” as he was credited on many recordings) are sketchy, but according to bios of his more famous older brother, bluesman Walter “Brownie” McGhee, McGhee was born in Knoxville in 1917 or 1918, or in Kingsport in 1923. Most sources agree that Stick grew up on a small, family farm near Kingsport, and it was there that he earned his horrifically literal nickname by pushing his then polio-stricken older brother around town in a cart with a stick. His father, George Duffield “Duff” McGhee was a farmer who played guitar and sang, and his sons often went along with him when he performed at churches, barns, and bars. Guitarist Brownie left home in the early 1930’s to pursue the life of an itinerant musician, hooking up most famously with harmonica player Sonny Terry, becoming a famous blues duo, performing and recording regularly up into the early 1980’s.

After a stint in the army during World War II, Stick joined his brother in New York City in the mid-1940’s, performing in various Harlem nightclubs. “Drinkin’ Wine” was first recorded on the independent Harlem Records label in 1947. That first, pre-rock and roll version features Stick on guitar and vocal and Brownie on guitar and helping out vocally on the chorus. The recording was not a hit, but the tune caught the ears of Ahmet Ertegun, whose struggling new jazz and blues label, Atlantic, was looking for a song that could be a popular hit. The story goes that he solicited the already successful Brownie to do a cover version of the record, which put him in touch with the song’s original writer and vocalist, brother Stick.

On the 1947 version, the instruments are two acoustic guitars, the vocal delivery straightforward; the overall feel is upbeat, almost rushed. The1949 re-recording for Atlantic again features Stick on vocals and Brownie on guitar, but from the starting notes this is clearly a whole new thing. Maybe it’s the sounds of the city they’ve begun got call home, or the influence of playing louder in the rough and ready nightclubs of Harlem, but this time the song distinctly rocks – the piano pumps, the drums drive, the guitar is gritty and higher in the mix. The tempo is slower this time, but stronger: this is not just a record to drink and dance to, but one that contains that essential element that separates rock and roll from jump blues and its other predecessors — a rhythm that more obviously parallels the movements of sex. Stick’s vocal delivery is similar to that of contemporary blues shouter Wynonie Harris (whose 1948 recording of “Good Rockin’ Tonight” is another contender for “first rock and roll record”), especially in the choruses. The lyrics are slightly different — New Orleans is now the scene of the tune’s debauchery, which only serves to emphasize hedonism that’s the song’s central message:

Drinking that mess, their delight

When they gets drunk, start fighting all night

Knocking down windows and tearin’ out doors

Drinkin’ half a gallon and callin’ for more

Drinkin’ wine spo-dee-O-dee, drinkin’ wine (bop baa)

Wine spo-dee-O-dee, drinkin’ wine (bop baa)

Wine spo-dee-O-dee, drinkin’ wine (bop baa)

Pass that bottle to me

Drink that slop!

That’s what I’m talkin’ about!

Ah, drink it! Sneaky Pete!

Now down on Rampart street at Willy’s Den

He wasn’t selling but a little gin

One cat wanted a bottle of wine

He hit that cat for a dollar and a dime

Stick McGhee continued to record for Atlantic through the early 1950’s, and also cut sides for Cincinnati’s King and Essex labels in the last part of the decade. Either because of the success of “Drinkin’ Wine” or due to his natural proclivities, most of his best work has drinking as its central theme, with titles like “Jungle Juice” and “Whiskey, Women and Loaded Dice.” His career was cut short by lung cancer in 1961; he died and was buried in the Bronx. The success of “Drinkin’ Wine” and its influence cannot be overestimated. It provided the fledgling Atlantic Records with its first big hit, and artists like Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin and Led Zeppelin could very well have been ignored entirely without the success of “Drinkin’ Wine” placing Ertegun in a position to keep taking chances on great music that often defied boundaries and created new genres. The tune itself became a standard of the early rock and roll repertoire, recorded by all of McGhee’s major contemporaries: Lionel Hampton, Wynonie Harris, the Johnny Burnette Trio It has been recorded by artists as diverse as Electric Flag, Jerry Lee Lewis and Kid Rock — the reigning “wild man” of rock (and rap).

While most of the details of Stick McGhee’s life have been lost to history, the life story of another rock and roll pioneer with regional roots is so chock-full of details that it is difficult to separate the truth from the (often self-created) legend. James Faye “Roy” Hall was born in Big Stone Gap, Virginia in 1922, just 40 miles north of the McGhee family farm in Kingsport, TN. He took the name Roy Hall in the mid-1940’s when he joined the Hall Brothers, an unrelated touring outfit who’d lost a brother named Roy prior to James Faye joining the group, and kept the name as his professional moniker for most of his career. Hall was an experienced pianist, and an alcoholic, by his late teens. Some sources claim that Roy was tutored in his piano and drinking skills by a black itinerant pianist, and Hall himself cited albino boogie-woogie pianist Piano Red (aka Willie Perryman, aka Doctor Feelgood) as a major influence. But in some of Roy’s later interviews he revealed that his first piano lessons were given him by his mother, who played piano at home and in church, and expected young James Faye to do the same.

Roy lead a Hank Williams-style country group, the Cohutta Mountain Boys, who recorded a few sides for the Detroit-based Fortune label, including the Hall-penned “Dirty Boogie” in 1949. After experiencing some jukebox and live success in the Midwest, and connecting with country crooner Tennessee Ernie Ford for a short while, serving as his backing band, Roy and the band relocated to Nashville. From 1952-54, Hall scraped by playing backing gigs and working as a booking agent (in this capacity he supposedly booked both Elvis Presley, who he described as “no damn good,” and Jerry Lee Lewis at a juke joint called The Musician’s Hideaway), before hooking up with country singer Webb Pierce, serving as his pianist and road manager off and on into the 1970s. Pierce was also able to procure several solo deals for Hall, including a deal with Decca in 1955, where he recorded the first version of “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On.”

The single was not a hit, and neither were subsequent versions by Big Maybelle or The Commodores (the 1950s version — not Lionel Ritchie’s band). It was only after Jerry Lee Lewis and Sun Records producer Jack Clement radically rearranged the song in 1957 that it became the hit, and Lewis signature song, that we all identify it as today. Jerry Lee’s propulsive piano gave the song a furious boogie-woogie beat, and his salacious delivery of the streamlined lyrics left no one doubting exactly what kind of shaking was going on.

Well I said come over baby
we got chicken in the barn
Who’s barn?
What barn?
My barn
Come over baby well, we got the bull by the horns
We ain’t fakin’
Whole lotta shakin’ goin’ on

Hall initially claimed sole writing credit for “Whole Lotta Shakin'” saying later that he’d written the tune while on vacation (in Europe, no less) under the pseudonym “Sunny David.” Songwriter Dave Williams (a Kentuckian with Native American and African-American roots) also claimed credit for the tune, and another source states that Williams and Hall wrote the tune together, on a hunting trip to the Everglades. Legally, Williams eventually established sole writing credit, but the song is often still attributed to “Dave Williams and Sunny David” and Hall’s story (or stories) are given substantial authority by many music historians, especially based on the fact that Lewis’s performances of the song, and relationship with Hall, pre-dated the Decca sessions, and he credited it to Hall. Either way, Hall never earned much from Jerry Lee Lewis’s smash hit 1957 version, or any of the song’s numerous cover versions: his ex-wife was awarded all of his royalties from “Whole Lotta Shakin'” by court order in 1958.

Roy Hall continued to write and record on his own, and with Pierce, through the end of the 1960s. In the late 1970s he was rediscovered by a new generation of rock and roll and rockabilly fans, and after almost a decade of retirement found himself on stage and recording once again, before passing away in 1983.

Stick McGhee and Roy Hall found their small shares of success, and their places in rock and roll history, far away from their southern Appalachian homes. One the son of an guitar-toting African-American farmer, the other a middle-class white boy from coal-mining country, tutored at the piano bench by his pious mother, both unsuspecting architects of the wildest form of twentieth-century music.

1972 – “Moonage Daydream,” David Bowie

My choice for 1972 is David Bowie’s “Moonage Daydream.” MD was originally released as a single, with different lyrics and credited to “Arnold Corns” — another Bowie pseudonym (Ziggy Stardust = HUGE improvement) — in 1971. The version that I’m covering is the album cut from Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars (1972). It’s a pretty amazing track, in my opinion, and this fact was solidified when my son Kieran and I got the chance to watch D.A. Pennebaker’s Ziggy Stardust concert film last month on VH-1 Classic. I don’t know how much longer we’ll be able to afford the massive cable package we have now — Tracey and I are discussing cancelling cable altogether at the moment to try and save money — but it really was pretty amazing to finally see the “final” Ziggy show with Bowie and the Spiders in all their supreme glam glory. For those of you unfamiliar with the Bowie ouvre (heathens!), I’ll point you to my blip.fm site and the  lyrics below:

I’m an alligator, I’m a mama-papa coming for you
I’m the space invader, I’ll be a rock ‘n’ rollin’ bitch for you
Keep your mouth shut,
you’re squawking like a pink monkey bird
And I’m busting up my brains for the words

Keep your electric eye on me babe
Put your ray gun to my head
Press your space face close to mine, love
Freak out in a moonage daydream, oh yeah!

Don’t fake it baby, lay the real thing on me
The church of man, love
Is such a holy place to be
Make me baby, make me know you really care
Make me jump into the air

Keep your electric eye on me babe
Put your ray gun to my head
Press your space face close to mine, love
Freak out in a moonage daydream, oh yeah!
Freak out, far out, way out

I can hardly begin to express how awesome it feels to sing lines like “I’m an alligator/I’m a momma-poppa comin’ for you/ I’m the space invader, / I’ll be a rock’n’rollin’ bitch for you” — especially in front of a crowd that’s expecting either innocuous folky musings or macho rock and roll posturing. And that is, if I can hazard a guess, one of the primary reasons that Bowie still strikes a chord with so many music lovers and musicians. If there was ever anyone who wrote fearlessly and “faced the strange” with an uninhibited sense of language that very seldom lapsed into self-parody (I’m a fan of Let’s Dance, myself, although many loathed it), it’s David Bowie.

I mention watching the Pennebaker film with Kieran, my 9 year-old. He really does love Bowie: I made him a Bowie comp at his request, and he’s been saying for almost a year now that he’s going to dress as Bowie (in either Ziggy or Labyrinth regalia) for Halloween. God bless ‘im! I think it started withFlight of the Conchords, who definitely have a Bowie fixation (e.g. “Bowie’s in Space” – a parody/mash-up of “Space Oddity” and “Let’s Dance”), and then continued, obviously, with our viewing of Labyrinth, a favorite of mine, and Tracey’s … and probably just about anyone nerdy who was born between 1969-1979. Tracey has fantasies of Kieran as the Goblin King with Luli as a butterfly-winged fairy (or Kate Bush) — hey, it might just happen.

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One of the coolest things about having kids is passing on your enthusiasms to them, but you also never know what direction they will take them. I would’ve never considered dressing as Bowie when I was 9 (maybe as Jim Bowie?), but at least I have the confidence to perform a Bowie song now, which is not something I would’ve had 5, 10, or 15 years ago. Not that I’m any closer to my bi-curious side, I’m just finally mature enough to know that’s not what it’s about (music, that is). It’s about following your enthusiasms.

I’m so very proud that my 9 year-old son wants to dress as Bowie for Halloween. I’ll be helping him with his hose and face paint that day, with a smile!

1973 – “Ooh La La,” The Faces

My choice for 1973 is “Ooh La La” by The Faces. It’s a quirky little tune — basically a riff with a little story and sing-along chorus thrown on top — and, honestly, the first time I remember hearing it was during 1998’s Rushmore (Wes Anderson’s soundtracks, particularly Rushmore and The Royal Tennenbaums, are almost additional characters in his films).

Poor old granddad
I laughed at all his words
I thought he was a bitter man
He spoke of women’s ways

They’ll trap you, then they use you
Before you even know
For love is blind and you’re far too kind
Don’t ever let it show

I wish that I knew what I know now
When I was younger.
I wish that I knew what I know now
When I was stronger.

The can-can’s
such a pretty show
They’ll steal your heart away
But backstage, back on earth again
The dressing rooms are grey

They come on strong and it ain’t too long
Before they make you feel a man
But love is blind and you soon will find
You’re just a boy again

When you want her lips, you get a cheek
Makes you wonder where you are
If you want some more and she’s fast asleep
Then she’s twinkling with the stars.

Poor young grandson, theres nothing I can say
Youll have to learn, just like me
And thats the hardest way
Ooh la la

I wish that I knew what I know now
When I was younger.
I wish that I knew what I know now
When I was stronger.

Written by Faces bassist and principal songwriter Ronnie Lane, the instrumental track was cut while vocalist Rod Stewart was on the road promoting one of his early solo albums. The story goes that when Stewart came in to record the vocal, he claimed that a) the key was too high for him to sing in, and b) he didn’t like the song anyway. Lane had cut a guide vocal during tracking, but he didn’t like his performance on it — he’d written it in Stewart’s key, or so he’d thought, and it was too much of a stretch for him. On a lark, really, they asked guitarist Ron Wood to take a crack at it, and his scratchy, straining tenor is, in my opinion, the most charming thing about the recording. The lyrics are nostalgic, but in a clearly tongue-in-cheek kind of way — I wonder if it’s not the sincerity in Ron Wood’s voice that really sells it?

facesoohlala1

Not only do I love the tune, and the images of childhood/young manhood that the lyrics connote for me, but the fact that there is so much rock and roll history underlying its creation makes it a no-brainer for my project. It’s nearly impossible to think of a band bursting with more possibility than The Faces were in the early 70’s. The core of the band — Lane, Maclagan, Jones — had been part of The Small Faces, the Steve Marriot-led psych-rock group that was one of the best singles/albums acts of the late 60s. When Marriot left to go in a heavier direction with Humble Pie, the remaining trio recruited Stewart and Wood, then with the Jeff Beck Group, and changed their name to The Faces.

With one of rock and roll’s best singers in Stewart, best songwriters in Lane, and most inventive guitarist/writers in Wood — as well as the powerhouse drumming of Kenny Jones and the inimitable keyboard stylings of Ian Maclagan — the band was one of England’s biggest live draws. Unfortunately, despite some great singles (like “Ooh La La,” “Had Me a Real Good Time” and “Stay With Me”), they were never able to translate their talents into a great album. Oddly enough, it’s Stewart’s solo albums of the era (Every Picture Tells a Story and Never a Dull Moment) — which feature appearances by most of his bandmates — that are the true classics: much to the very-talented Lane’s chagrin, I’m sure.

For whatever reason — professional jealousy, too much booze — The Faces split up, for all intents in purposes, with the departures of Lane (1973, right after the release of Ooh La La) and Stewart (1975). Ron Wood famously went on to join the Rolling Stones, and has now been a member of that band for 34 years (gulp!); drummer Kenny Jones attempted to replace the late Keith Moon on The Who’s drum-riser from 1979-1985, but has since been replaced by a series of young drummers during the Who’s seemingly-interminable series of reunions; and keyboardist Ian Maclagan has served time in so many bands (he’s now one of Billy Bragg’s “Blokes”) and played on so many records that there’s literally no room to mention them.

Lane went on to record albums with Ronnie Lane’s Slim Chance, as well as a great duo album with the Who’s Pete Townshend entitle Rough Mix, but never acheived the popularity he desired or deserved. Lane passed away from complications related to MS (which he was diagnosed with in 1976, during the recording of Rough Mix) in 1997.

And Rod Stewart — whatever happened to that guy?

Halloween Mix, 2009

One of the things I always enjoyed about being a “working” band with RRSL was playing on (or nearabouts) Halloween: costumes, cover tunes, general idiocy = always a blast. In 2007 we put on a “Dead Rock Star Ball” in both Johnson City and Knoxville (in JC we had The Neverwills and Fierce Embracew/us; in Knoxville, FE and Stacie Collins and her band). The idea was to perform songs by, uh, dead rock stars. The shows were great fun, but picking, learning and rehearsing the songs was the best part, in my opinion.

So, this year I’m just doing some picking. It’s a little Halloween mix for your listening pleasure: I hope there’s at least one new and creepy tune for you to discover here:

“Red Right Hand” (Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds) — rock and roll at its most cinematic

“Last Caress” (Misfits) — you may know if from Metallica’s cover version, but the Danzig-led Misfits version is the best!

“Welcome to My Nightmare” (Alice Cooper) — kind of a gimme, but a true shock-rock classic

“Two Headed Dog (Red Temple Prayer)” (Roky Erickson and the Aliens) — Roky hears demons … and they seem to tell him some pretty cool stuff: “I’ll be walking in the Kremlin with a two-headed dog”

“Season of the Witch” (Donovan) — great riff, and just about as creepy as 60s pop-psych gets

“Psycho” (Jack Kittel) — first heard this on a radio show Elvis Costello dj’d, and Robert Alfonso taped for posterity; I hear EC still covers it often in concert

“Pardon Me, I’ve Got Someone to Kill” (Johnny Paycheck) — never has straight-up first degree murder sounded so deeply since

“Everyday is Halloween” (Ministry) — this was Tracey’s suggestion: she was a bit of a club-kid back in college, or so I hear

“I Put a Spell on You” (Screamin’ Jay Hawkins) — campy and fantastic

“Man in the Long Black Coat” (Bob Dylan) — definitely captures a mysterious mood; who is The Man? Does it matter?

“Sober” (Tool) — yes, it is a real stretch to think of this as a Halloween song, but it is in one of the creepiest songs I’ve ever liked … and the video is just as, if not more, creep-tastic

“I Ain’t Superstitious” (The Upholsterers/Jack White) — the classic (and really scary) version is Howlin’ Wolf’s, but I couldn’t find that one … Mr. White will have to do

Learning to Be a Dad

In later winter of 2008, on the verge of becoming the father of an infant for the first time, I bought several books for myself, and received a couple from the soon-to-be second-time Mom, my wife. My Dad-help library ranged from corny self-help (picked out by moi) to Gen-X memoir (my wife’s choices), and they were all informative in their own way. So, You’re Going to Be a Dad? offered great advice on dealing with a colicky baby who couldn’t be quieted (don’t get angry, be patient, the crying will stop … eventually) that was very helpful when our newborn, L, turned out to be that baby. Neal Pollack’s Alterna-Dad prepared me for Dr. Bodreaux’s Butt Paste and the adventure of finding an appropriate daycare: we were lucky to get “on the list” for a great one close to the campus where I work, but L’s first few months there were anything but smooth. Mostly, though, the books only reinforced what I already knew: you couldn’t learn about being a Dad from books. It’s your children who can teach you how to be a Dad – if you’re smart enough to listen.

Less than a year before, I had adopted my wife’s son, so I’d had a bit of on-the-job-training – at least on the elementary-school level – with K.  His biological father had never been involved, so with K I got a fresh slate: he didn’t know what to expect from a Dad, and there was no one else I was going to be measured against. Expect there was. My wife had fulfilled all of the roles in his life up to this point, with some help from his Grandpa after they’d moved back to Tennessee when K was five. She’d done so in an exemplary way: when we first met, K was good in school, well-behaved in social situations, funny, and unusually articulate for a six year-old. Really, all I could do was screw him up — which I almost immediately did.

It was January, about four months into our relationship, and K was having trouble at school. Some kids were making fun of him, and there were a couple who really knew how to push his buttons. At six, K could be easily frustrated – he still can, but he controls it much better now – and often his frustration led to crying. A few of the kids in his class obviously found this trait to be irresistibly intriguing. Several times when I came over for dinner he was still upset about things that had happened at school, and once he asked me how I’d dealt with bullies when I was his age. Honored to have been asked, I announced proudly, without thinking, “I hit him in the face.”

The call from his school came as we were driving through the tail-end of an ice-storm, on the way back to East Tennessee from Richmond, VA. After coming through an area with poor cell phone service, she checked her voicemail and discovered a message from the secretary at K’s school; K was in the principal’s office, and they needed to speak to an adult in his family right away. When she relayed the message to me, I – again without thinking – said, “What did he do, punch some kid in the face?” Actually, that’s it exactly what he did, she said: how did you know?

I immediately confessed. I had thought I was teaching him something more, something about standing up for yourself, about not letting people take advantage of you. Turns out, he was listening to what I was saying, not what I thought I was saying.

Thankfully, I wasn’t solely to blame – turns out K’s Grandpa had given him the same advice a week before. And, of course, K had a choice; he could’ve not punched the other kid, who it turns out had pushed him after failing to make him cry. Still, I felt awful: this had been my first act, and my first failure, as a parental figure. There would be more.

Nearly three years later – by this time I had become a father of two – I was involved in what I knew to be a quixotic political campaign. K, now 9, was my “campaign manager” — by necessity. My wife had left the firm she’d been working for and was starting her own law business from scratch; L had been born in May and I couldn’t expect my wife to take care of both kids every evening and weekend while I was campaigning, so K was on the road with me – putting up signs, talking with people at county fairs, knocking on doors, speaking at the few rallies and events we planned or were invited to — from August through early November. He shook hands and handed out flyers; he smiled and said, “vote for my Dad” (even though I asked him not to!); he even gave a speech at a rally by request of the organizers – and he loved every second of it.

Election night, after the polls closed, we had a little celebration at our house, just the three of us (L was already fast asleep by the time we got home – lucky me!), and as the results started coming in across our district, the inevitable phone calls began: a few reporters, my opponent, but mainly family and friends. I was requisitely humble, and hopeful – I’d known I had little chance of even making a dent in the polls, but I was pleased with the results. Honestly, I was glad it was over. Elated, actually. It was, in my mind, the hardest and possibly the stupidest thing that I’d ever committed myself to do. I was glad I’d done it, but I was even happier that it was over. My joy, as it turns out, was fleeting.

After about an hour of talking on the phone, I came out of the spare room and saw my wife standing outside K’s door: “He can’t sleep, he’s can’t stop crying,” she said.

K was devastated. I sat there on the floor beside him for a few awhile, like his Mom had, trying to tell him that it was okay: we’d done the best we could, and that had to be enough. It wasn’t his fault, or my fault, or our friends’ faults – it’s just the way things were. “We worked so hard,” he sobbed, “we deserved to win.” I tried to explain the lessons to be learned: That someone has to stand up and fight the unwinnable fights. That life isn’t always fair, and the hardest worker, or the fighter with the most sincere purpose, doesn’t always win. But he didn’t stop crying, and he cried himself to sleep.

Kids listen to you, I thought to myself. Kids believe you. Kids believe in you – sometimes when you don’t even believe in yourself. And they deserve more than just nudge and wink answers (“hit him in the face”), or folksy wisdom (“that’s just the way it is”). I’ve learned these things from K, and so much more.

K is teaching me how to be a Dad, and I am, hopefully, not messing him up too badly in the process. He’s teaching me how to be optimistic and hopeful (not my default mode, believe me), and he always inspires me with his intelligence, strong sense of fairness, and general awesomeness. And I’m still learning.