It has been a while coming but this book, the third by John Broven, is well worth the wait. John's previous two books are `Walking To New Orleans' (American title `Rhythm & Blues In New Orleans') and the definitive and not bettered history of swamp pop music `South To Louisiana'. However, with his latest achievement, he has come up with a masterpiece, literally the holy grail of the story of the `backroom boys' in the formative days of rock `n' roll music.
This is the story of the people who, whilst not sharing the same degree of limelight as the performers, nevertheless played a crucial role in the launch of rock `n' roll in its formative years and then who aided its continued existence, despite the efforts of the main establishment. To say that they were key important people is an understatement. This could have been a dry and sleep inducing story but, as related by the author, it consistently retains spontaneity and the interest never flags. Indeed, it is a hard to put down journey once commenced.
John Broven has, over the course of time, interviewed the key players such as Ahmet Ertegun and Miriam Bienstock of Atlantic Records, Sam Phillips of Sun Records, Joe Bihari of Modern records and Art Rupe of Specialty Records to name but a few. Indeed, the interview with Ahmet is thought to be the last he gave prior to his unfortunate demise. But that is not all, as John has talked to such as disc jockies/promoters like Bill `Hoss' Allen of WLAC, Nashville, songwriters like Paul Evans, recording engineers such as Cosimo Matassa, music publishers Gene Goodman and Freddy Bienstock. On top of this, also considered are distributors, one-stop and juke box operators. But there is more as there then is the in-depth and extensive research undertaken by John that reveals too many to list nuggets of information. Truly, this book comes across as a labour of love but one that has appeal to all, whether they have a casual interest in the development of rock `n' roll or are out and out record collecting die-hards. The style of writing is easy to read, consistently entertaining and never less than informative. Indeed, at times, the text comes across as a real life gripping thriller.
Clearly a lot of thought has gone into the structure of the book. Part One is titled `The Independent Revolution' and provides the background to the role played by the Independents basically from the end of the second world war to the onslaught of music that was the avalanche of rock `n' roll. The second part is titled `Regional Sounds' and
as the name implies undertakes a look at the various geographical centres and their importance in this story. For example, the chapter on Nashville features the development of radio as a launch pad, and includes pieces on Excello Records, Dot Records and the numerous characters who all helped rock `n' roll to come from birth as a squalling baby through to a multi million dollar industry. This part also has chapters on Chess/Checker/Argo Records and the brothers Chess who launched their empire up north in Chicago, King/Federal/De Luxe Queen/Bethlehem out of Cincinnati, Ohio and the inimitable likes of Henry Stone and Syd Nathan. The next chapter then comes south to Memphis and Louisiana and includes the results of interviews with Sam Phillips, whom as I know from my own conversations with the gentleman, was erudite on the growth of rock `n' roll, blues, R&B, and country music in the Memphis region. Also featured are Joe Bihari, Rosco Gordon, Lillian McMurray of Trumpet Records and Stan Lewis. The last mentioned is especially important as he often is by-passed when great record men from this region are considered. The concluding chapter for this section ventures even further south down to Crowley (the legendary J D Miller - another person who I have been fortunate to meet and can therefore endorse John's writings), Eddie Shuler of Goldband Records, recording engineer Cosimo Matassa in the Crescent City and many others.
On to part three and which is headed up `The Hustle Is On'. As the title implies, this deals with the various strategies and hustles that many in the record industry developed and adopted to `make a buck'. It also covers the importance of magazines such as Billboard and Cash Box. This section then goes on to discuss Hy Weiss of Old Town Records and the way in which he hustled for hits. I found this story particularly fascinating as Hy comes across as a person one could not help liking, even despite on occasion debatable business methods. From here we go onto Mercury and Roulette Records, and interviews with Luigi Creatore, Jean Bennett (who I can personally vouch is a charming lady), Shelby Singleton and a cast of hundreds. This section also explores the importance of the part played by music publishers. This is the biggest section of the book and actively explores all the various facets of the methods adopted to turn a record into a hit. Fascinating stuff and often bought a wry smile to my face as I read on. Author Broven features an extensive interview with the late Roquel `Billy' Davis, and this covers the near complete history of rock `n' roll. Furthermore, Davis was a principal player in the groundwork for the empire that became Tamla Motown. This guy was involved in and saw it all. Absolutely first rate material. This part also goes over to the west coast and, amongst others, details the Champs `Tequila' story and the part played by Dave Burgess, another important character in this evolutionary story. As the balance to the R&B influences, author Broven also views the very important country influences in the rise and rise of rock `n' roll. Some amazing facts are revealed in this portion. This part concludes with three chapters on the New York scene and this is more that justified if one considers that at the time frame we are considering, NYC was the centre of the music business.
Part Four, `Rock `n' Roll Is Here To Stay' focuses on the rise of London American Records and the story of Sir Edward Lewis, head of (UK) Decca and its subsidiary labels. London American was the label for licensing American recordings for release in various countries throughout the world. Thus it played no small part in spreading the rock `n' roll word (as well as turning a healthy profit for all concerned).
This evolves into the rise of the teen singers and labels such as Chancellor, Cameo Parkway and Jamie/Guyden. Logically, this is where the importance of Dick Clark and American Bandstand is discussed and then continues on to the Payola scandal . Clark comes out of it relatively unscathed. This section concludes with Art Rupe of Specialty Records and his staff instruction manual written in the mid-fifties. john Broven rightly declares this as the modus operandi for independent record makers. Wonderful stuff and is truly revealing.
In Part Five of the book are the various Appendices which are numerous but include sections on US Record sales in the period 1921-1969, a summary of various post war record labels including current owners and biographical data on selected record makers.
There you have it. Hopefully, I have been able to convey, in these few words, the enjoyment and knowledge that this book bought to myself. It will undoubtedly appeal to anyone who has an interest in our musical past. Moreover, it is the most important book on rock `n' roll music that has been written in more than a decade. The book is now on its second reprint and has met with acclaim from many, including quite a few of the interviewees who have been grateful that their views have been expressed without manipulation. Essential for every book shelf and as the late great Gene Vincent was heard to exclaim, `Git It.....'
© Tony Wilkinson