So one day in 1957, when I was thirteen years old, Mom, Dad, my brother Simon (who was three years younger than me), and my baby brother Seth went on a day trip to Westport, Connecticut to visit the Eastmans: Phil, Marilou, and their two kids Tony and Allen. Tony was fourteen at the time and his younger brother Allen was Simon’s age.
My folks knew the Eastmans going back to California days when Phil had worked with my Father at UPA. Phil and Marilou were a bit older than my folks. In fact they had met at the Walt Disney studio in the late 1930s where both of them were then working, Phil in the story department and Marilou in ink and paint.
Both were also involved in left wing politics, and their association with Disney ended abruptly in 1942 at the time of the famous Disney strike. Disney blamed the strike on communist agitators, which certainly was an over simplification of things, but there was at least a grain of truth in that. By the time Tony was born that same year, Phil had moved over to the animation story department at Warner Brothers. So Tony, like me, was another animation brat. He was literally born into the animation business, and by the time I met him there seemed to be little doubt that he was going to end up in that business. Like my father, he was an authentic child prodigy, and also like my father it was already clear that he was some kind of “can do” genius. Outside of the fact that Tony was still in high school, he would have been eminently fit to go into the animation business right then and there.
That first day we met he showed me flipbooks going back four or five years – hundreds of them, boxes of them — that put my feeble efforts to shame. Really, he had already outgrown flipbooks and had started doing animation on regulation animation paper. He had color cel set-ups of his various characters, like Philbert Flea and Rocky Rat, and animation model sheets going back to the Disney days, pinned up all over the walls of his room. I was fascinated and blown away. He was also affable, outgoing, and clearly wanted to be my friend in spite of the fact that he seemed to be superior to me in every way! Well, I was floored! But I liked Tony and we became best friends, really, from that day forward.
The Eastmans, like my parents, were also jazz fans and record collectors. Tony and Allen always called their parents by their first names. There was none of this Mom and Dad stuff which I guess was a manifestation of their “modernism.” Phil and Marilou’s record collection covered the same territory that my parent’s collecting did, and then some. It isn’t that they necessarily had more records, but their tastes seemed to be more wide-ranging, beyond the moldy fig standard. Part of that may have been that Phil was older (born in 1909), and, like Tony, didn’t throw much out, so he had a good deal of the jazz and pop stuff that he had collected as a kid in the 1920s. Tony was also a record collector. What he essentially collected was 45 rpm rock ‘n roll sides.
I had been watching the emergence of rock ‘n roll myself ever since I’d seen Bill Haley and his Comets singing “Rock Around the Clock” on The Milton Berle Show in 1955. Walking around in the world in those days you couldn’t miss it, but I wasn’t a fan and I certainly didn’t have any rock ‘n roll records. Tony, on the other hand, was and still is a dedicated fan of the genre. The Eastmans didn’t leave Los Angeles for the East Coast until 1955 and Tony told me that one of the very last things he’d done before leaving was to buy a copy of the Haley hit record of “Rock Around the Clock”. It was the start of his record collecting and I don’t doubt that he has that very disk in his massive record collection to this day. I was fascinated by all of this even if my understanding of it all was still pretty limited. Tony didn’t buy every damn thing on the Top Forty but his collection of 45s was already mounting up. “Come Go with Me” by The Dell Viking, “At The Hop”, “Born Too Late”, Little Richard, Fats Domino, and, of course, Elvis Presley.
I wasn’t an Elvis fan yet, but I had been following his meteoric rise to fame particularly on TV. While staying over at a friend’s house in early ’56 I saw one of his first TV appearances on The Stage Show which was hosted by Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey. We’d flicked on the TV and there was Elvis with Scotty and Bill Black, singing his classic rendition of “Baby Let’s Play House”.
I wasn’t really ready for it, but my friend and I watched mesmerized just the same. Like it or not, it was different! My parents didn’t like Elvis. Most parents didn’t. Although a month or so later when the Presley craze was in full cry, my brother Simon and I were in a pizza parlor with my mother when Elvis’ smash hit “Heartbreak Hotel” came on the jukebox. She’d been hearing about Elvis but hadn’t heard him sing. “That’s Elvis Presley?” she said. We nodded. “God, it sounds a lot like blues.” Well it wasn’t quite praise, but we could also tell she was taken a bit by surprise.
However, my parents soon seemed pretty united in not liking Elvis and rock ‘n roll. But my father’s pattern of interest in all music, including music he didn’t like, also continued. So as often as not he was there with Simon and me watching Elvis’ continued appearances on live TV as 1956 wore on. Elvis started showing up on all the big shows: Milton Berle, Steve Allen, and, of course, inevitably, The Ed Sullivan Show. It was a definite rite of passage in those days. You hadn’t really arrived until you were on Ed Sullivan. It was like big time vaudeville on coast-to-coast live TV. Elvis made multiple appearances there in 1956 and my father was watching with us during a particularly well remembered Elvis appearance. In fact he was the first to pick up on what was different about this particular Elvis appearance. Elvis was known for his sexy hip shaking moves as he sang and there was a lot of controversy on that point. What my father laughingly pointed out to me and Simon was that during this appearance, Elvis was being shown from the waist up only. He was right and everyone was talking about it later on.
Elvis wasn’t the only big rock and roll to show up on Ed Sullivan. Especially stunning was the black r & b crossover Bo Diddley. His appearance singing his hit record was truly two-and-a-half minutes of shockingly amazing live TV! For a lot of Americans it was like the whole damn African jungle had landed in the middle of Ed Sullivan’s stage!
If Elvis hadn’t convinced people that times were changing, Bo Diddley had to! The only time I heard my Father say anything remotely positive about Elvis was one night when we saw another rock and roller, Jimmy Bowen, on Sullivan singing his Top Forty hit, “I’m Stickin’ With You”. “Bee Bop, I lova you baby, Beebop, I don’t mean maybe.” It was a very wooden performance and my old man gleefully jumped all over it. He roared, “This guy’s got nothing! At least Presley’s a showman!”
My dad’s career had taken another big step forward by this time. CBS had recently purchased Terrytoons, a huge animated cartoon factory that had been operating in New Rochelle, New York since 1930, from its founder, Paul Terry, for six million dollars. Terry was 70 years old and ready to pack it in. CBS was looking for somebody a bit more cutting edge and contemporary to run the place and they offered my father the job. It was an amazing place, full of old timers, many of whom had been in cartoons since the 1920s.
Meanwhile, under the influence of Tony, my interest in rock and roll became more proactive. I was buying 45s, too. Some of it coincided with Tony, but I was getting some favorites of my own, too. I’d started listening to Alan Freed’s radio show on WINS. Freed definitely seemed a clear cut above a lot of dj’s. Rock ‘n roll had made him famous. He was even making movies and I suppose there was something sort of sleazy about him. But you could tell he was some kind of smart and you could also tell that he genuinely liked this new music. I can remember lying in my bed at night with a little portable radio shoved in my ear as Alan Freed shouted, “And here he is, Mr. Excitement, Jackie Wilson!”
Freed sold me on that guy. My first actual rock ‘n roll buys were Jackie Wilson records on the brownish-maroon Brunswick label. I also started picking up Ray Charles sides on the red Atlantic label. Elvis and Jackie Wilson were just fine with me, but very soon my number one fave was “The Genius! The High Priest! Ray Charles!” What made him particularly fascinating to me was his range. He knew a lot about music and sang and played all kinds, including rock ‘n roll and r&b (often very gospel tinged). He could also croon when he felt like it. He traveled with a big band that even had a modern jazz lick to it. I figured, here was somebody I could find some common ground with my old man on. Not so. He dismissed Ray Charles for being too all over the place. He tried to pull me back over to the real stuff. He went through the blues section of his records and pulled out a field record that Alan Lomax had made of a Mississippi blues singer named McKinley Morganfield in 1940. It was impressive: rough, rhythmic, great bottleneck guitar style. I started looking more closely through my old man’s blues sides. “Milk Cow Blues” by Kokomo Arnold; outstanding! Then I found a ’40s Bluebird side, “Worried Life Blues”, by Big Maceo. Surprise, surprise! The Ray Charles record of the same song was more than just a record of the same tune, it was a direct homage to Big Maceo, or a steal depending how you wanted to look at it.
Another record in my father’s collection that I came to absolutely adore was “That’s All Right Mama” by Big Boy Crudup. Interestingly enough, it was even an early 45 rpm record pressed in transparent orange vinyl. It was a Victor record and one of the earliest 45s probably from ’49 or ’50. Apparently Victor color coded their early 45s, and orange designated them as r & b sides. What was an r & b side doing in my father’s collection? Well, Big Boy went back a few and you could still find plenty of his earlier sides on 40s Victor Bluebirds. But I never did find one I liked so much as “That’s All Right”. That record jumped and I just loved it! I played it to death. Literally. One day a big chunk of it just fell out. I guess that orange vinyl wasn’t all that stable. It broke my heart.
It was also around this time that I discovered a fascinating thin paperback called Who’s Who in Rock ‘n Roll. It was already a few years old when I got it and what a little goldmine it was! It was intelligently written, and one thing it did very well was fortify the connection that rock ‘n roll had to the music that came before it. Impressively, the book was dedicated to Bessie Smith, a person most of the readers of this book had probably never before heard of. Yes, Bessie could rock when she felt like it. If you don’t believe me, give “Put It Right There” a listen some time. What is more, I even found some other familiar names out of my father’s blues records listed here as rockers — Joe Turner, for instance. It listed all kinds of performers both familiar and obscure r & bs like Ruth Brown, Bull Moose Jackson, Louis Jordan, and Clyde McPhatter; all the chart busting white acts like Jerry Lee Lewis and Carl Perkins; all the big doo wops, black and white. It also contained several really interesting articles about the rise of rock ‘n roll. There was also a fascinating article about Alan Freed and a ton of interesting stuff I didn’t know before about Elvis. For instance it stated that Elvis’s first record, issued in 1954, was none other than “That’s All Right Mama”! Oh my God! That was one record I just had to hear! I finally caught up with it on a Victor repressing of the original Sun Records side. It wasn’t as good as Big Boy Crudup, but it wasn’t bad either. Not his best Sun side or his worst. It’s not as earth-shakingly amazing as “Baby Let’s Play House” or “I Don’t Care If the Sun Don’t Shine”, but it had something. And it wasn’t just a lift from black r & b. Those original sides Elvis made for Sam Phillips at Sun with Scotty Moore’s good guitar and Bill Black’s string bass were truly historic. They have all kinds of influences going on, but they are not mere imitations of anything. They are truly their own thing and sound as fresh and great today as they ever did. When I hear those now… well, it makes me kind of sick thinking about what might have been with Elvis, and what soon became all too clear, was not in the cards. It is a classic textbook case of a guy who was a pathetic victim of his own success.