Pioneers and Followers, They Are All Going to That Great Gig in the Sky
Rock and Roll’s Pioneers and Followers, they all keep passing away.
I guess we could argue about it but by my calculations there are only two of rock and roll’s true pioneers still walking the earth.
Jerry Lee Lewis and Little Richard are fighting it out for the prize of being the last man standing from that illustrious group which kick started the whole thing.
Elvis, Buddy Holly, Chuck Berry and Fats Domino have all kicked the bucket. Amazingly Buddy as early as 1959 and Fats only this week.
No one person invented rock and roll but like the lamington there have been many who have put their hands up. But in terms of popularity, originality and influence I am pretty sure we have got it covered with the above team. Mind you producers like Sam Phillips and Tina Turner’s other half, Ike helped things get going, as did Les Paul’s invention of the solid body electric guitar.
But Elvis, Chuck, Fats, Jerry Lee and Buddy Holly and the blues, country, jazz, gospel and boogie woogie got together and somehow around the mid 1950s we got rocking.
I was thinking about this this week for a number of reasons.
Yesterday one of Rock’s finest rhythm guitarists passed away. Vale Malcolm Young.
I have to say AC/DC are not my favourite band but you got to recognise success, persistence and chops and AC/DC had that in spades. And no other band understood the KISS principle better.
I guess there are two sorts of guitarists. The flashy lead guy with all the solos and stage moves and the rock solid rhythm guy at the back doing the riffs and keeping it all together. As a brotherly act AC/DC was blessed with both types and there is no doubt Malcolm Young knew how to write those riffs and he knew how to play them. Australia’s best rock exports ever.
Which got me thinking about Chuck Berry who died earlier this year. No doubt Chuck Berry blueprinted rock and roll guitar but what he doesn’t get enough credit for is his lyrics. As rock ‘s first poet he seemed to sum in a neat three minutes the lot of the teenager better and with more wry humour than anyone. He was the first to tell stories about that audience’s emotions, dreams and experiences with accuracy rather than just descriptions of dancing or sex or partying.
Check out Roll Over Beethoven, Sweet Little Sixteen, Johnny B Goode, Rock and Roll, You Never Can Tell [Vincent and Mia’s dance competition tune in Pulp Fiction] and School Days. Now imagine if you can, hearing those songs on your radio when you’re 16 in small town America in the 1950s.
How important was he? Johnny B Goode is on the gold discs that are attached to the space satellites Voyager 1 and 2, now heading out into deep space. That’s cool.
Which brings us to the now departed Fats Domino and the incredibly rich musical heritage of New Orleans. Before hurricane Katrina New Orleans was probably the most multicultural city in the USA. Previously a Spanish and French [twice] owned outpost, in 1803 Emperor Napoleon sold a lazy 2.1 million square kilometres of land including New Orleans to the USA for the 2016 equivalent of $250 million US. Talk about real estate deals.
Along with all that land for its westward expansion the USA got creole and Cajun culture, voodoo, more slavery and an environment that spawned jazz, R&B and a major role in inventing rock and roll. And if anything, as popular music has moved away more and more from guitar based rock with strong blues and country roots towards beat based R&B, hip hop, rap etc. New Orleans has become even more significant as a birthplace for rock and everything that has come after.
Fats Domino was the major early champion of that New Orleans sound mixing elements of dixieland, blues and creole music and having monster hits with Blueberry Hill and Ain’t that A Shame.
Now if you are a certain age you will remember Richie Cunningham from the TV show Happy Days anticipating/celebrating successful dates with a few lines from Blueberry Hill. Funny what makes songs stick in your head, sometimes the good songs come to you for bad reasons.
Again hugely influential, Fat’s first hit The Fat Man in 1949 has rock and roll’s DNA all through it. If you are in a rock and roll band and you play keyboards Fats is in your music somewhere.
The Beatles loved him especially Paul McCartney. Have a listen to Lady Madonna for some tweaking of that Fats piano style.
One band did a better job than most in linking these genres into one great style. A band Jimmy Page named as his favourite USA band in 1975. They never had a hit but if your taste runs from 70s artists like The Doobie Brothers, Boz Scaggs, The Allman Brothers Band through to 80s stars like Hall and Oates, jam bands like Phish, alt country like Wilco and current performers like Ben Harper, John Meyer and Donovan Frankenreiter you will find something to like about Little Feat.
In a series of fine records from 1971 to 1979 Little Feat captured New Orleans’s funk sound and threw in country, jazz, blues, rock and soul into their mix of fine music beautifully played. Unlike Fats, they worked in Los Angeles offering their prodigious talent to sessions and/or songs for better-recognised 70s and 80s names like Robert Palmer and Linda Ronstadt.
Very well worth checking out especially their albums Sailing Shoes, Dixie Chicken and Feats Don’t Fail Me Now.
Want to try a couple of taster songs? Try the gorgeous trucker’s anthem Willin, or Rock and Roll Doctor with Lowell George’s potent slide guitar or Spanish Moon where the funk comes to the fore.
On that topic, the also late Robert Palmer’s early career, before the big production drums and guitars of Addicted to Love and Simply Irresistible, was filled with New Orleans funk and Caribbean reggae. Check out his work with Little Feat and New Orleans funk masters The Meters on his albums Pressure Drop and Sneaking Sally Through The Alley.
PS Teen heartthrob of the 70s David Cassidy also kicked the bucket this week. These things do come in threes apparently. His big hits were the sort of songs teenage girls swooned too but he had more talent than his brother Shaun. And I would rather listen to “ I Think I Love You” than most of the stuff on commercial radio now days so a fond farewell to you too David.
The best Fats Domino, AC/DC and Chuck Berry moments from other people -
· Cheap Trick’s power pop cover of Ain’t That A Shame from their kick ass Live At Budokan album
· This hillbilly bluegrass version of AC/DC Thunderstruck on YouTube. See https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=e4Ao-iNPPUc
· Everybody’s favourite boozy bar band, The Faces’ cover of Chuck Berry’s Sweet Little Rock and Roller