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Agenda Publications
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CDs reviewed in this article: Big Al Downing, "Rockin" n'Rollin," Schoolkids' Records Sid King & The Five Strings, "Rockin' on the Radio," Schoolkids' Records Charlie Gracie, "Live at the Stockton Globe," Schoolkids' Records A recent theory in aesthetics argües that rock music is a recorded music with technological concerns (e.g., the production, mix and sound) as the central tenets to evaluating and appreciating the music. This compelling idea may work forrock music, but as heard on these early rock & roll recordings, it is the performance that defined and illustrated the essence ofrock&roll. It seems Schoolkids' Records started a trend when they released Bill Haley and the Cornet' s original 1951-54 Essex recordings a yearor so ago. Now the label has released three CDs that offerarare listen to the three branches of performance styles that went into early rock & roll: the rhytnm and blues leaningsof Big Al Downing, the western swing side of Sid King and the Five Strings, and the poprock' n' roll sensitivity of Charlie Gracie. The rhythm and blues performance aesthetic can be clearly heard on Big Al Downing's "Rockin' and Rollin'." His piano stylings in these 1958 recordings combine the rhythmic piano lines of Fats Domino with the hollering and shaking gospel spirit of Little Richard. Tunes like his classic "Down On the Farm" and "Piano Nellie" are jumping, fast, and bassladen, illustrating a variation on the jumpblues tradition of Louis Jordán and earlier boogie pianist Pete Johnson. Downing's vocals are gritty and dirty. Coupled with his infectious piano playing, Downing's performance is an excellent example of the R&B performance style found in early rock & roll. The cuts on Sid King's "Rockin' On The Radio" are off-air broadcasts f rom Den ton and Taylor, Texas in 1954 and 1955. Announced as hillbilly music, this western swing style of rock & roll owes much to Bob Wills' Texas Swing and Hank William's two-step music. King ' s renditions, which incorpórate a slap up-right bass, slide guitar and electric guitar, are up-tempoed, electric, and danceable. They appealed more to a younger audience and were more like traditional country music of the time. But no matter how it was derived, this western variation is pure rock & roll. For example, versions of Bill Haley' s "Rock this Joint," Webb Pierce's "In The Jailhouse Now," Big Boy Crudup's "That's All Right," Chuck Berry's "Maybelline," Maybelle Carter' s "Wildwood Flower" are all just a little off-center. King's performance is neither straight western music nor R&B. At times elements of both strains can be heard. His performance genuinely reflects the music that both Elvis and Buddy Holly heard and emulatedintheirmusic: a mixture of western dance rhythms, country lyric sentimentality and R&B jump music all performed with an energy that expressly defines rock' n' roll. This stuff is the real deal. Although Charley Gracie's 1957 recording "Live at the Stockton Globe" is a mixed bag of ballads and rockers, the power of his rock & roll performance easily comes through. Backed by an ensemble that seems mcrc at home playing wedding dances than rock & roll shows, the energy and excitement from the performance comes directly from Gracie' s hard work. Musically, Gracie's material is not as lowdown as Downing's. He often selects songs, such as "Ko Ko Mo," that seem more at home on the middle-of-the-road TV show " Your Hit Parade" than on a raucous rock & roll stage. Also Gracie' s voice is more melodie and cleaner than Downing's "darker" R&B-tinged voice, much in the same vein as popular crooner Johnnie Ray and British rocker, Cliff Richard. Thus Gracie is more acceptable to the white popular music impresarios who were trying to catch up on, and control, the rock & roll phenomenon. Nowhere is cross-over pop sensitivity clearer than on tunes like "Trying," his minor hit "Butterfly," and his cleaned-up-Pat Boone-versionofLittleRichard's'TuttiFrutti." This surprisingly good recording puts Gracie right in the middle of the pop vain of early rock & roll, focusing on versions in the rock & roll repertoire, (i.e. "Hound Dog," "Flip, Flop, Fly") that could be easily cleaned up for a more middle class white audience. This comment is not meant as a put-down. Instead, it is in Gracie' s easy appeal to this pop audience that shows the broad and lasting power of early rock & roll. For a good primer on the performance evolution of early rock' n' roll, piek up all three recordings.


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