Dave turned onto 13th Ave that runs west out of Ames Iowa, and into the farm country for a Sunday drive with Penny. Dave’s dad had recently bought a ’56 Chevrolet Bel Air hardtop, India Ivory over Nassau Blue. Dad ordinarily would not have loaned Dave his new baby, but he liked Penny, and Dave had recently gotten a job at the mercantile on the corner of 9th and Wilson showing the first the signs of responsibility. Pop was feeling magnanimous. Both parents had high hopes that when Dave and Penny graduated high school the following summer Dave would follow his dad into the feed business, marry Penny and settle into the sweet life of Ames.
Dave’s parents had a right to worry and do all they could to make Dave happy and get him grounded as he approached adulthood, which in 1956 Iowa came at 18. Dave did not have the educational skills to go to university, and that was fine. 75% of the people who grew up in Ames never went to college and had for 150 years settled into the sound life of farming and farming support in Ames that had been good enough for generations. But Dave was not happy and Mom and Pop hadn’t a clue as to why. Neither, by the way, did Dave.
After the war the US had exploded with opportunity and wanderlust. Dave’s generation was the first of teenagers that realized there was a huge world out there and all you needed was a car. Breaking out from your parents’ world suddenly didn’t seem impossible and started to become necessary.
Dave had a friend at Ames High who’d bought a 1954 Ducati Gran Sport and was planning to take the bike out to California when they graduated. Spit Winkler, who was given his nickname because he earned it, was pretty wild and a year older than Dave because they kept him back in the second grade when Spit let the air out of Mrs. Desmond’s tires on her ’42 Studebaker.
But the idea had captured Dave. As he drove out into farm country, with the wind through the open window blowing around strands of Penny’s hair, Dave went over the plan in his head for the 473rd time. He would work at the mercantile until graduation, which was in 8 months. Old Mr. Owens would let Dave work as many hours as he wanted because his kids were worthless trouser shitters. He gave Dave a really good wage of $1.80/hr. He would have to quit football (which would cheese both his parents right out) but he could probably do 25 hours a week working 12 on Saturday. In 8 months he could amass a fortune close to $1000 which would be enough to put him on some boss wheels. He would have to become a monk, and he would have to lose Penny (another cheesy moment). She was sweet and a great girl, but she was expensive. This bird expected presents on Flag Day.
“A penny for your thoughts, honey.” This was her favorite joke.
“Nuthin Babe. Just daydreamin.”
Let’s see. US 69 would take me all the way down to the 66 east of OK City and just south of Muskogee. Then. Then Penny turned on the radio and Dave’s brain was dancing to Chuck Berry. Suddenly the soft summer afternoon embraced them both with the sun turning the sky from Nassau Blue to cloud born patches of Matador Red. The image of Route 66 became blurred when Penny asked him to pull the car over between some fields.
The music of the 40’s and early 50’s had begun to morph into what would become known as rock, or jump blues or rockabilly, starting believe it or not, with Hank Williams in the late 40’s. I spent a considerable time looking for the early guys and it’s a very murky period in music history. I’m going to put first this Williams song from 1947 because the kids born in the mid 30’s that would become the stars of rockabilly would have heard this song on the radio when they were in early teen years. From 1947, ‘Move It On Over’ with a vanguard guitar solo that had rockabilly written all over it. Zeke Turner on guitar.
Ok all you Texas Swing guys just sit back down. I get it. But dude. That guitar solo.
Music would go 4 years before turning in a rock tune written by Jackie Brenston and Ike Turner with Ike’s Kings of Rhythm band. That’s right, that Ike. I know, I know, the argument about the first rock song/band is fraught with idiots and jester philosophers with their claims and boasts. Remember my threat of a posse in my last piece. I submit this because there’s a great story and it was early.
And, enter Sam Phillips. This is how shit happens.
In their haste to get to the studio in Memphis the band had an amp fall out of the back of the trunk. When they got in the studio the amp appeared to be broken, emitting the fuzzy distorted sound of a busted speaker cone. Philips went to a diner next door, got some paper and stuffed it into the cone, resulting in the sound we have here. Soon Everybody wanted to know how to get that sound. And the band played on.
Appropriately enough named for a car, from 1951 ‘Rocket 88’.
Um, sorry about the cuts to the girl getting dressed. [OMG! Bettie Page!!—Ed.] Ok maybe not as sorry as interested. I thought MY g-g-generation invented that weird irrelevant video shit.
By 1954 there were bands and guys all over experimenting with this sound and there was a groove around Memphis called Sun Studios that was sucking in Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash, BB King etc. Here’s another ‘this is how shit happens’ story. It is truly amazing how many of these stories involve flippin Sam Phillips.
In July of 1954 Phillips had put together a backup duo for a young kid named Elvis Presley. Presley had recorded a ballad for Sam to give to his mama, and after some ‘convincing’ from a secretary (of course) tried Presley with a local guitar player named Scotty Moore who brought in a bass player from his band, Bill Black.
The session was not going well and they were about to break it up for the night. To paraphrase Scotty Moore because I lost the flippin quote:
“Elvis started cutting up. We were all tired and Elvis just started goofing around, playing an old Big Boy Crudup blues tune but up tempo. Bill joined in slapping his bass around. The door out of the studio must have been open because Sam stuck his head into the studio and said, ‘What are you guys doing?. We said we didn’t know. Sam said, ‘Well back it up, find a spot, and start again”.
What happened, and again Bill Black is probably not the first, but a true rockabilly sound with that ticking slap bass. Keep in mind here; there are no drums. Elvis and Scotty on guitar, and Bill Black slappin the willy out of that double bass. Moore called it ‘rhythmic propulsion’.
From 1954, ‘That’s Alright (Mama)’.
Scotty Moore guitar, Bill Black rhythmic propulsion bass
Now all hell broke loose. Especially from Mom and Dad’s point of view. By 1955 everybody was recording and releasing this unbelievable sound. I could go on forever (right Leebs?) but I’ll trot out a couple of real influences.
In researching the next guy I was trolling Youtube looking for this tune and there was a comment from one of the listeners. I’m not sure from what time period this guy was from, but it really doesn’t matter.
“I had just started junior high in Highbridge the Bronx, 7th grade I was 12 and on leaving school there was a crossing guard who stopped traffic and a car full of teenagers was stopped with radio playing “Maybelline” ancient to me seven years old but I loved it instantly, the crossing guard yelled at the teenagers to turn the radio down, and they cranked it up all the way, I loved it all!!! Nobody wanted to back down but the teenagers gave the crossing guard the finger and he finally gave up, I loved it, teenagers were people to be avoided but I thought God Damn I’ll be one some day too! “
By the way the original recording of this at Chess has Willie Dixon on bass. More on dat dude later.
From 1955, Chuck Berry’s first hit ‘Maybelline’.
Chuck Berry was swimming in a pool of talent with names like Little Richard, Gene Vincent, Eddie Cochran, Duane Eddy, Jerry Lee Lewis; the list is endlessly gifted. But Chuck was certainly an influence in the genre he called “a music of teenage wishes fulfilled and good times (even with cops in pursuit).”
In the same year Bill Haley and the Comets released a song and became international stars. It’s hackneyed, but I include it here because of the guitar solo alone.
The guitar on the original is Danny Cedrone who died in a fall down a stairway in 1954 so he never saw his solo become one the classics in rock. Classic coolness.
By 1960 rockabilly had morphed into doo wop and early rock and the rockabilly guys were eking out a living on the nostalgia circuit. In the late 70’s the genre was revived within a style incongruously called New Wave. At least we thought it was New Wave.