This music started for me in the mid-'50s when I was 12 years old with a song I heard on the radio. I visualized the singer to be a middle-aged black man wearing a pork pie hat, a cigarette dangling from his lips as he sat playing, hunched over a piano. Imagine my surprise when I saw that the singer of “Heartbreak Hotel,” Elvis Presley, was actually a handsome young white man playing an acoustic guitar! "Shoot... maybe I could do this," I immediately thought. And so I got a guitar and constantly listened to records and taught myself to play. (Photo below: Al Kooper, aged 15, playing a Bb chord - 1959)
There were three guitar messiahs everyone my age listened to. Elvis’s guitarist Scotty Moore, who, because he was the first, portrayed God in the movie. Next was Rick Nelson’s imaginative Telecaster-picker, James Burton. I always said in those days if you were a girl you bought the record cause it was a Ricky Nelson record. If you were a boy, you bought it 'cause that was James Burton playing. And last, but not least, were the comparative space age journeys of Gene Vincent’s guitar man, Cliff Gallup. I still cannot figure out how to play his enclosed selection. I asked Jeff Beck two years ago when we were in a room together to show me how to play it and of course HE could play it perfectly. When I saw what he was doing, I knew I’d never play it in this life. And of course, there’s more of these six-string virtuosos included here; writing space is limited but I’ll try to credit all I know with each selection’s notes.
Rockabilly fascinated me because I never heard nothin’ like that growing up in Queens, NY. I loved the sounds and rhythms, and REALLY liked the clothes as well. Here are ten of the tracks that changed my life forever — and I’ll never tire of listening to these beacons of education no matter how old I get.
Below is a jukebox containing all the songs I picked this week. After you read about them below, go back and listen to whatever you like by just clicking on that title in the jukebox, or stream the whole playlist by clicking on the "play" icon at the top. It's free and it's the entire song. We're not selling anything. We're just in the business of hopefully making your days better by listening to great music.
1. "My Baby Left Me" — Elvis Presley (2:11)
This one has the sound that encapsulates it all. Scotty Moore (far left, photo below) had an offshoot of a country tone but it had unheard mid-range and bottom compared to its descendants and of course producer Sam Phillips' original slapback echo wrapped around it. The singer’s not too bad either.
2. "Cat Man" — Gene Vincent (2:18)
“Be Bop A Lula,” Vincent’s inaugural hit single, surely aped the Elvis sound replete with that slapback echo. But Gene’s overall sound was all Fender instruments played by his band The Blue Caps. This has an almost Latin rhythm thang going but the daring of Cliff Gallup’s Stratocaster is truly amazing. It’s obvious he played a little jazz before all this started. Gene Vincent’s clothes and album covers were inspiring to this young lad as well.
3. "Milk Cow Blues" — Ricky Nelson (2:12)
I always thought it was ballsy of Ricky to cover an Elvis track, but the difference was James Burton (left, photo below). He didn’t imitate Scotty Moore and took it somewhere to its own place; some say it's the better rendition of the two. James was innovative in using banjo strings on the two highest strings of his Telecaster, causing him to have his own signature sound. When I was producing Lynyrd Skynyrd, I marveled at how well guitarist Ed King could call up that James Burton sound anytime he felt like it. By that time I had used James on some sessions and we became good friends. Elvis stole him from Rick in the '70s for his live shows.
4. "The Fool" — Sanford Clark (2:36)
Originally on tiny MCI Records, this got picked up by Dot Records eventually and for some strange reason went to #5 on the R&B (!) charts in 1957. A great rockabilly track with nice guitar work by session ace Al Casey.
5. "Maybe Tomorrow" — The Everly Brothers (2:05)
Their vocal blend will stand out for eternity. This was my fave for that reason. I missed the great Don Everly acoustic strums of the uptempo hits, but this B side had the most heavenly vocal blend. Their catalog should live forever... there would have been no Simon & Garfunkel, Hollies, or Crosby, Stills and Nash without these talented brothers who also wrote this fine song.
6. "Sittin' in the Balcony" — Johnny Dee (1:57)
Johnny Dee was a pseudonym for the great songwriter John D. Loudermilk. This version, on tiny Colonial Records, was upstaged by Eddie Cochran’s hit cover. I like this better, especially Joe Tanner’s perfect solo. Loudermilk’s compositions include “A Rose and a Baby Ruth,” "Tobacco Road," "Boo Boo Stick Beat," "Waterloo," "Indian Reservation," "Ebony Eyes," "Stayin’ In," "Then You Can Tell Me Goodbye," "This Little Bird," "Talk Back Tremblin’ Lips," "Abilene," and so many more. And the folks who recorded them? Here’s a few: George Hamilton IV, Edgar Winter, The Nashville Teens, Spooky Tooth, Chet Atkins, Don Fardon, Mark Lindsay, The Everly Brothers, Bobby Vee, Al Kooper (!), The Casinos, and Marianne Faithfull. There are hundreds more!
7. "Hula Love" — Buddy Knox & The Rhythm Orchids (2:18)
“Party Doll” was his biggest when I was 13, with the best color photo on his first album cover. This was a single from his first album and it cracked me up back then. The lyrics are almost racist and I always wondered what Hawaiians thought about them. Otherwise, great production for its time featuring amazing drum sounds. Later-to-be-famous producer Jimmy Bowen (Frank Sinatra, Garth Brooks) was the Rhythm Orchids' standup bassist and had three hits vocalizing with them backing HIM up!
8. "Lovin' Up a Storm" — Jerry Lee Lewis (1:51)
“When kisses fly like oak leaves caught in a gust of wind...” is a great lyrical way to start off a record, and Jerry Lee held up the musical end as well with this rockin’ piano goodie. I’ve always loved this and am amazed by its relative obscurity. I think you’ll enjoy this as well.
9. "Not Fade Away" — The Crickets (2:20)
In the mid-'90s, when I lived in Gnashville, I was hired to play keyboards for the existing Crickets for a party celebrating Buddy Holly. We were rehearsing this oft-covered Buddy Holly tune, and I asked original bassist Joe Mauldin what kind of groove it had when they played it live. “We never played it live, Al,” he said. “It was just a B side for our second single.” So much for that after the Stones covered it in ‘63-‘64.
10. "Somethin' Else" — Eddie Cochran (2:03)
I saved this for last because sound-wise it’s hard to top even today. The opening lick (used between verses) and the fadeout still gets me outta my chair every time. I am totally amazed that no one has sampled this (especially the fadeout) after all this time. I tell DJs about it constantly, but still no takers. Anybody listening out there?
Eddie died young in a taxicab accident in the UK that also permanently damaged Gene Vincent’s leg and caused him severe pain the rest of his life. For many years, on the anniversary of the accident, fans would stand outside the cab driver's home with nasty placards and boo him!
In a few weeks, part three of the My Foundations column will cover my early gospel influences — but see ya with the usual tunes next week!