Before moving forward in proper time sequence I’d like to talk a little more about Elvis. And to do it I’d like to discuss something that was recorded at the Sun Records studio in Memphis in December 1956. It was only released to the public as an LP in 1989 or ’90 but was known of it was made. There was a news photo taken at the time showing Elvis, sitting at a piano with Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis and Johnny Cash gathered around him. Since Johnny Cash does not play on this informal session taped by Sam Philips, my guess is that Cash probably didn’t show up ’til the whole thing was nearly over. Nevertheless this legendary session was forever after dubbed “The Million Dollar Quartet.”
It happened so spontaneously that Sam Philips didn’t even think to flick on the studio tape machine until the thing was well under way. You hear about things like this and often as not they turn out to be not true, or disappointing when found. Not so The Million Dollar Quartet! This really is a piece of the rock ‘n roll holy grail. There are some impressive Lewis things at the end, but one even feels that they might have been tacked on after Elvis had left the building. This is pretty much Elvis’ show. He’s even hogging the piano for most of it, which must have driven Jerry Lee nuts. But what a show! Here we have Elvis in an informal setting, but in a professional recording studio, singing and talking at the end of his most golden year, 1956. In a way here is another situation that seems to hark back to that Alan Lomax folklorist thing, a streak that was very much a part of Sam Phillips’ personal, messianic makeup. Musically, my favorite part of it is Elvis singing with much fascinating talk in the midst of it all, a song which he was soon to make a single of, That’s When Your Heartaches Begin.
I’m pretty sure the original record of this song had been made by a ’30s-’40s black groupcalled The Ink Spots, but I’ve never heard the record. It is a ballad, slow and intense with a recitation in the midst of it though, that has Ink Spots written all over it. Elvis is fantastic on the recitation, better than “Are You Lonesome Tonight”, made some years later. And on this version, it’s as if he just can’t let go of the song. It finishes, he starts talking, and at least once maybe twice he goes back into it. These are terrific musical moments. Another big highlight is when Elvis starts talking about visiting a nightclub where a black performer is playing (This kind of ties up another rock and roll loose end for me, too). He doesn’t mention this performer by name, but it was Jackie Wilson. Elvis describes listening to Wilson doing the recent Elvis hit, “Don’t Be Cruel”. Then he sings it with all the little touches that Wilson added to the song. This was all the more fascinating to me when shortly after hearing the Quartet LP, I watched a kinescope of the final appearance Elvis made on the Ed Sullivan show in early 1957, not very long after the quartet session. It was the last live TV performance Elvis would ever make, and a touching finish to this his all-too-brief golden age. The repackaging of Presley was already underway. His hair was dyed jet black now and the Gospel group The Jordanaires, whom Victor had started adding to his sessions, were with him. But in it he sings “Don’t Be Cruel” with the Jackie Wilson touches he discussed on the Quartet album! He also sings a wonderful spiritual, “Peace In The Valley”, on this appearance, which was certainly great use of the Jordanaires. It is a moving Elvis musical moment. We didn’t know it yet, but those would be few and far between in the years to come.
As my friendship with Tony Eastman grew, so did our record collecting activities. In 1958 Tony came across his Father’s old wind-up Victrola in some dark corner of the family garage in Westport Connecticut and moved it into his room. He also unearthed some of Phil’s old childhood 78s. One in particular that really stood out was an early electric Ted Lewis side. As far as we were concerned, it was a double0sided hit. One side had a tune called “Angry”, and “Say Arabella” was on the flip. Both were lively, as fun as you could want and, boy, did they sound great on that old wind up Victrola!
This opened up a whole new branch of record collecting for both of us. We hadn’t stopped collecting rock ‘n roll, but we were haunting the Goodwill store In Norwalk near where Tony lived for old 78s now as well. And I became a regular patron of the Salvation Army store on Orchard Street in Tarrytown New York, where I then lived. One Tony discovery that we never got tired of was “The Dipsey Doodle” by Chick Webb’s Orchestra. We didn’t know that Chick Webb was a black band or that the vocal was by young Ella Fitzgerald, (even though it said so in tiny letters on the label). She sounded white to us. Good, but white.
My old man had also given Tony one of his old acetate dubs of a Jelly Roll Morton Red Hot Peppers side, with a vocal by Morton (rare in those days) of “Dr. Jazz Stomp.” We played that one to death! At the Tarrytown Salvation Army I wasn’t doing so bad either. I found a lot of Fats Wallers. One I never seemed to get tired of was a reissue of a 1929 piano solo of Fats playing his famous composition, “Ain’t Misbehavin’.”
I also picked up reissues of most of the 1920s Lewis Armstrong Hot Five sessions. Sure my Father had these right downstairs in his own collection, but somehow having my own personal copies made me really focus in on them. For the first time I got into those amazing Armstrong solos ’til I just about knew them by heart. Odd pop stuff started asserting itself too. I found a ten-inch cut down reissue of Paul Whiteman’s version of “Sweet Sue”. The sappy effeminate sounding vocal by Jack Fulton was beyond my comprehension, and frankly the minute-long Bix Beiderbeck cornet solo (that almost sounded like bebop in places) was also something I wasn’t quite ready for yet. We were also finding things that I guess you would have to describe along the lines of record archeology. One was a record on plastic coated flexible thin brown cardboard on the Hit Of the Week label. The song was, I’ll be Blue Just Thinking Of You, by Bert Hirsch and his Orchestra and I kind of liked it. It turned out to be from 1930. These were single sided but often played longer than a normal 10-inch 78. My old man explained to me that this was a depression marketing ploy, selling records cheap at newstands, and that it didn’t last too long. He did add though that Ellington had made a few. Tony found another fascinating peculiarity, which was a 1909 marketing record heralding the advent of double sided records. Apparently up to that time all records recorded only on one side. This record had a song by old timer Henry Burr on one side and, in a very stentorian voice, a commercial for double sided records on the other. Fascinating! Shortly after that Tony bought a red labeled Victor that was single sided, figuring that this then must also be a REALLY old record. It was a song, I can’t remember what song, by the very famous singer John McCormack. What we didn’t realize was that Victor continued to issue what they called Red Seal records (their classical, opera and general prestige line) — single sided all the way to 1923. So, relatively speaking ,this McCormack side wasn’t all that old and had no appeal for us. Tony’s father, Phil, tried his best to explain to us who McCormack was and his place in the grand musical scheme of things but, we just weren’t ready for anything like that. What’s more, you couldn’t have told me that I ever would be at that time. That came much later.
One prophetic kind of thing happened to me one day in 1958 or ’59. I was walking along in the rougher part of downtown Tarrytown when I found a box with some 78s in it just sitting there on a street corner. This was the first (but not the last) time that such a thing happened to me. I can’t remember just exactly how many records were there, but there were three that live in my memory. The first was a very peppy dance band version of “Keep Your Sunny Side Up”, maybe from 1929, since all the voluminous versions of this DeSylva, Brown and Henderson song were made that year; there was a record called “Tijuana” by someone named Smith Ballew and his Orchestra. I would learn more about him in years to come.
Finally, there was the iconic double-sided Bluebird Glenn Miller hit, “Moonlight Serenade” coupled with “Sunrise Serenade”. The one among them that made the biggest impression on me, at the time, was the Smith Ballew side. It had a tricky, intricate latin beat that fascinated me. Smith’s vocal didn’t exactly grab me, but I didn’t hate it and it seemed to strangely work with the rest of the record. Forty-odd years later, I just about fell out of my chair when Rich Conaty played this long forgotten side on his weekly WFUV Sunday radio show, “The Big Broadcast”. Talk about weird deja vu! It opened up a veritable rat’s nest of memories! At the time, I wasn’t really ready for the Miller side, though I found it of interest. I’d heard all about Miller’s search for, “the sound”, but my Father dismissed him as commercial and lightweight, and just then I was willing enough to agree with that. It was only years later when I heard all the fascinating Miller arrangements for classic sides by the orchestras Ben Pollack, Red Nichols, Ray Noble’s American band, and the Dorseys that I had the context for what he was trying to do and finally succeeded with in that double-sided hit Bluebird, somewhat deceptive in its simplicity. There was the earlier, killer side by Miller under his own name, “Moonlight On The Ganges”, with great Bunny Berrigan trumpet and creative use of violins, which I guess was another attempt at “the sound” before he came up with the clarinet led sax section on “Moonlight” and “Sunrise Serenade. I think he owed a little to Guy Lombardo on that, too: a sweet band that eschewed violins in favor of a tightly led sax section.
(Arrangement by Glenn Miller)
Meanwhile, by 1959 rock ‘n roll had leveled off a bit. Elvis had been drafted into the army. I guess he left a few things in the Victor vault because at least one really good Elvis side did come out that year, “A Big Hunk Of Love”, which was the first new Elvis record I ever bought. By this time, besides going to high school and collecting records, Tony and I had started our own cartoon company, Eastman Deitch Cartoons, and were shooting our own cartoons on 16mm film. The ones Tony made were awesome; mine, not so much. We did make some interesting collaborations though. Most memorable was our magnum opus, “Dial M For Monster”, a live action send-up of horror movies, with animation and stop motion sequences by Tony. The big news in rock ‘n roll in 1959 was not good. Stemming out of the quiz show scandals came the payola scandal, which in reality was an attempt to kill off rock ‘n roll. It all came out of the so-called revelation that DJs were taking money to play and promote certain records. Surprise, surprise. Well, of course it wasn’t a good thing but it had been going on a lot longer than rock ‘n roll. The very term payola goes back at least to the 1940s. An easy target for all of this was poor old Alan Freed, who already seemed to have fallen on evil days. By 1959 he didn’t look so good and was running a local weekday rock ‘n roll dance party type show where various acts came and lip synced their current sides. There were a lot of these shows at the time. Dick Clark was top dog by this time and his show was national. One interesting sidelight to this was at least two people who never lip synced but always insisted on singing live on these shows were Bobby Darin and Fats Domino. Class will tell. Anyway Alan Freed was the first poor bastard of real prominence that got nailed by the payola scandal. He lost his W.I.N.S radio slot and was fired off of his local TV show. His last week after getting the boot was a very bitter sweet thing to behold; heart breaking really. He may have been a flawed person, but there was something about the whole thing that seemed to stink to high heaven. His radio replacement Murray (“the K”) Kauffman always started every show off with a Frank Sinatra record, so you knew where his heart really was. I came to have some appreciation for Frank later, but right then it seemed clear evidence that Kauffman was pandering. And the music got worse, too; at least the top forty did.
In 1960, Tony graduated from high school and was soon packed off to college. He joined a fraternity there and bit by bit we began to drift apart. Musically, however, he was getting into more advanced rhythm and blues, which considering the sorry state rock and roll had drifted into, was really kind of revelatory. He started playing me things like “Fannie May” by Buster Brown (on the Fire label), who was doing a great r ‘n b take on the Sonny Terry blues harmonica style. Then there were all the great Jimmy Reed records on Vee Jay. I started studying up on the blues a little more myself. I read a book called The Country Blues by Samuel Charters, which basically traced blues records all the way from the Blind Lemon Jefferson sides of the 1920s to more or less contemporary rhythm and blues times. One performer he spoke about was a singer named Muddy Waters. Remember when I told you about that Alan Lomax field recording of a 1940 Mississippi blues sing named McKinley Morganfield that my father played me as a particularly outstanding example of country blues singing? Well, this Muddy Waters was the same guy! I wish I could have shown that to my old man but he was gone by then. More about that later. Tony and I started buying Muddy Waters singles on the Chess label. One of them, “I Just Can’t Be Satisfied”, was even a somewhat electrified remake of one of the 1940 Alan Lomax sides! This was huge to me. If this wasn’t the missing link to what Dad listened to and what was going on now in r ‘n b, then there simply was no such animal. A little later I got my hands on the classic Chess Muddy Waters LP, The Best of Muddy Waters, an essential record of this kind of music if ever there was one. One cut, “Rolling Stone”, was absolutely stellar. It was the side heard round the world. It’s where the Rolling Stones got their name, not to mention the well known “rock” newspaper. It may not have ever hit the top forty, but it certainly hit a lot of very influential types right where they lived.
But there was something else going around in my parents social set: divorce. It just suddenly seemed to be in the wind as it happened to one couple after another among my parent’s friends. Long before it finally hit our house, I was getting a kind of sick feeling that it was heading our way. Well, it finally got there and set off huge shock waves in our house. I don’t think my Mother was ever really the same after that.