The Unorthodox Website Blog

Wild, wild men of Rock’n'Roll

29 May

In the past couple of weeks I’ve played some of my old vinyl. I have a considerable collection of 1950s-style rock’n'roll (also traditional Country Music). I’m also slowly acquiring a CD collection. None of this stuff do I play that often, finding so many other things to do when I’m at home. TV and the computer taking up much of my spare time. I tend to play Country audio cassettes I made up years ago when on long train/coach journeys or sunbathing. I haven’t adopted the fad of everyone under 40 to go around permanently with earphones/Ipods, oblivious to the world around them, and I haven’t traded in my record player, CD player or audio cassette player for an I-pod. The technology, time, know-how and hassle required to transfer my considerable vinyl, CD and audio cassette tracks to an I-pod would just not be worth the effort – I’ve had enough trouble trying to transfer VHS stuff to DVD.

Anyway, I digress from the main theme of this blog, which is the wild men of original 1950s rock’n'roll and rhythm’n'blues which have never been equaled or surpassed since. It was a crazy time with crazy characters, the like of which will never be seen again.

Take Esquerita, for instance. A wild, wild extrovert gay piano thumper and singer who was a mentor for another gay wild piano player/singer, Little Richard. Esquerita was even wilder and more outrageous, wearing his hair piled up in a sort of beehive, and sequinned shades over his eyes. He recorded such gems as ‘Hole In My Heart (And All My Love Leaked Out’), ‘Rockin’ In The Joint’, ‘Batty Over Hatty’ and ‘Hey Miss Lucy (You’re Too Fat’n'Juicy For Me)’.

His piano playing and singing was manic, as was another Little Richard style black guy, Larry Williams whose ‘Short Fat Fanny’ might raise a few eyebrows in England where ‘fanny’ has a much more vulgar meaning than in his native America. Larry Williams also gave us ‘Dizzy Miss Lizzy’, ‘Bony Maronie’ and the inappropriately named ‘Slow Down’ which is one of the fastest rock’n'roll records, moving along with an irresistible rhythm.

Little Richard in the 1950s

Little Richard himself, of course, gave us wild melodies like ‘Tutti Frutti’, ‘Good Golly Miss Molly’, ‘Long Tall Sally’, ‘She’s Got It’, ‘Heebie-Jeebies’ and many more. He too was (is) very extrovert, climbing on his piano and stripping in the 1970s and later.

Little Richard 1970s


Little Richard in 21st Century


My own personal favorite, and the only white guy among those mentioned so far, is Jerry Lee Lewis. Still alive, recording and touring, he is now a sweet old man who sedately sits at the piano and runs thru a set-list, but until quite recently he was totally unpredictable, and occasionally a spark of his old rebelliousness shows thru even today. He thought nothing of tearing the sound people off a strip or two, and quite recently walked off stage to sort them out. He also recently gave a band member the finger as he walked off, though nobody’s sure what upset the man known as The Killer. Once, when a spotlight kept wandering off him on to his backing band, I heard him change the words of one of his Country hits from ‘There Must Be More To Love Than This’ to ‘There Must Be More To Lights Than This’ and tear off the ‘boy, girl or whatever you are’ controlling the spotlight, adding: ‘Just keep that spotlight on ME!’

Jerry’s shows were very wild, ending with him climbing on top of the grand piano or even inside it. In the 1950s he wore bright-colored drape jackets and he sported long hair and blond highlights long before anyone else in the pop music business. His hair was always combed back neatly, but fell down around his face during his wilder perfomances, making him look like the proverbial Wild Man of Borneo (well Louisiana actually, or Tennessee, or Mississippi – the three states he has lived in, apart from when he lived in the Republic of Ireland during the 1990s).

Above: two pictures of Jerry Lee Lewis in 1960s

Jerry Lee is responsible for perhaps the wildest ‘live’ album ever recorded – ‘Live At The Star-Club Hamburg’, and as recently as the late 1980s was still climbing up on pianos and violently kicking back piano stools (I wonder how many he’s broken in his long career?)

Jerry Lee Lewis in 21st Century

Screamin’ Jay Hawkins and Henry

Eclipsing all these characters in sheer eccentricity is another black guy, the late Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, whose records I also played recently. His most well-known song is ‘I Put A Spell On You’ also recorded by other artists, but Jay’s specialty (I use the American spelling/pronunciation rather than the British ’speciality’) was to dress in what can only be described as native African garb, often with a bone thru his nose, carrying a skull on a stick called Henry (who often was smoking a cigaret).

Jay used to jump out of coffins, and introduced all sorts of special effects like flashes of fire and bangs, and apparently was known to throw wriggly things into the audience screaming ‘worms, worms, worms’.  As his name implies, his trademark was screaming and talking a load of nonsense, much of which (along with his appearance) would be considered very politically incorrect and in fact racist if done by a white guy. He mimicked African language, and also Chinese in some of his songs. In one of his later performances, available on YouTube, he even added AIDS to the recipe of some of his imaginary potions like ‘Alligator Wine’. Other melodies included ‘The Feast of the Mau Mau’ (they put their thumbs in their eyeballs and make pickled olives – reach out into his chest man and let me bite on that cat’s bone – give me some more of that inside soul, etc.)

If you’ve ever heard the expression ‘murdered’ in relation to a song, listen to Jay’s version of  ‘You Made Me Love Ya’ complete with screams, ‘boyoings, gimme, gimme, gimmes’ etc. – wonderful stuff! In ‘Hong Kong’ he does a brief round-the-world talking bit, imitating Chinese and German, and for Africa just throws out the line: ‘I saw Mau Mau kissing Santa Claus’.

This crazy American moved to France, and died on a train from his last performance in Amsterdam back to Paris, leaving many ex-wives and about 65 children behind, all claiming some of his inheritance. This puts to insignificance Jerry Lee’s six wives, two married bigamously, one only 13, though such a young age or even younger was commonplace in the Deep South at the time. Bigamy was not encouraged, but as his sisters Linda Gail (married at 14, now been married 8 times) and Frankie Jean (married at 12)  explained: ‘He gets confused.’ ‘ He marries people but forgets to divorce them.’ Actually he did divorce them, eventually.

Screamin’ Lord Sutch 1960s

Screamin’ Lord Sutch, another white guy and a Brit to boot, took his name and rock-horror act from Screamin’ Jay. Never a brilliant singer, he was a great publicist, standing for elections for his National Teenage Party, and latterly his Monster Raving Loony Party. His early recordings for gay record producer Joe Meek include ‘Jack The Ripper’, ‘Dracula’s Daughter’ and ‘Black and Hairy’. Sutch was often carried on stage in a coffin, would light a fire on stage with petrol during ‘Great Balls of Fire’ and put a toilet seat round his neck and don a pig’s head mask for ‘I’m A Hog For You Baby’.

Screamin’ Lord Sutch with ax

Screamin’ Lord Sutch, Monster Ravin’ Loony

All the above, apart from the one Brit Lord Sutch, were piano players as well as singers. Screamin’ Jay’s ambition was to sing opera, and indeed he had a rich baritone voice which would have enabled him to do so – presumably without the screams and the bones thru his nose.

Such eccentric characters and wild men seemed to be produced by that early era of rock’n'roll. Many now dead, of the above only Jerry Lee and Little Richard survive, both shadows of their former selves though still capable of singing and playing their old hits, and indeed recording new material. Larry Williams died in 1980, Esquerita died of an AIDS-related illness, Sutch tragically commited suicide. Screamin’ Jay’s demise has already been described above.

Where are the eccentric characters to replace these legends? Lady GaGa seems very tame by comparison.

  1. Graham Knight posted the following on May 30, 2010 at 7:13 pm.

    Thanks for the Wild men of Rock Tony.

    Like you, I knew all these crazy people and they changed my life completely.

    We are fortunate to still have Jerry who can still surprise us – like at the 100 Club.

    Wouldn’t our lives have been so dull and mundane without them.

    Thanks Tony


    Reply to Graham Knight
    1. roger mudd posted the following on June 28, 2010 at 4:38 pm.

      sorry I forgot to hit the button so please see my reply to the Fishmongers Arms to Tony

      Reply to roger mudd
  2. Graham Knight posted the following on May 30, 2010 at 7:25 pm.

    Thanks Tony,

    Like you, I knew all these wild men and knowing them has made our lives so much more interesting!

    I miss them all and am amzed that Jerry is still with us and as you say is still capable of inspiring us like he used to – he was terrific at the 100 Club – the best show in the last few years. Who could have predicted that Jerry would still be rockin’ at 75.

    thanks, Graham

    Reply to Graham Knight
  3. Tony posted the following on May 30, 2010 at 7:35 pm.

    Thanks for this Graham. I saw all of them ‘live’ except Esquerita and Larry Williams. But even these two I felt I ‘knew’ thru their music.

    Great characters, all of them. Freddie ‘Fingers’ Lee and Jason D. Williams were/are also pretty wild/unpredictable. I remember Freddie when part of Mal Gray’s ‘Hurricane’ taking out a long knife from a sheath on his belt and cutting all the keys off the club piano (used most weeks by Shakin’ Stevens piano player Ace and various groups) at The Fishmongers Arms, Wood Green. He threw the keys into the audience. Fun at the time, but we couldn’t have any rock’n'roll piano players there until the club could afford a new piano, or to have the ruined one repaired (this was before portable electronic keyboards became popular). Also of course, playing the keys with a paint-roller, toilet brush, pistol, etc. were a regular part of his act, and coming on stage with his headress alight. Also changing the words of songs: ‘Goodness Gracious, my balls are on fire’, ‘All my love, all my kissing, you don’t know where the cat’s been pissing’, ‘hang down your tool Tom Headley’, and the alternative version of ‘I’m a Nut’ entitled ‘I’m A Poof’. Sadly he suffered a stroke and is now unable to play piano, due to being attacked by a gang of youths.

    Jason D. I’ve seen on the marvelous Sun video, with him jumping on and off the keyboard, standing on his hands and playing with his feet, etc. I saw him ‘live’ once at Pakefield (Wildest Cats In Town Weekender) – he ran around the stage with the piano stool upside down on his head screaming: ‘Hallelujah, I’m saved!’. Don’t you just love nutters like this? I also spotted him on Phoebe’s table at the JLL Birthday Convention in Memphis in 2002, and went up and spoke to him, telling him to come to UK. He’s only performed here that once I believe.

    Screamin’ Lord Sutch got rock’n'roll banned at a short-lived club in upmarket Belsize Park, Hampstead. He pushed thru the crowd and cut thru a bamboo partition with his ax to get on stage! I heard he once borrowed an amp from another group, and that too ended up with his ax embedded in it.


    Reply to Tony
  4. roger mudd posted the following on June 28, 2010 at 4:31 pm.

    You are right about Jerry. I can remember going to a cinema in Merton ,Surrey from North London and seeing him perform to an audience of no more than about 150 (possibly more,but not more tan 200)back in the mid 60’s and he performed as if it were jam packed, even though when he first hit the keys he asided to the audience “where did they get this?’and then just blasted on giving a brillo act and unlike many,his voice was the same as on recordings.

    ‘Fishmongers Arms’ wood green – you may be older, probably not as I know Sutch performed at many places at the time so I do remember ging to the r&r nights – I probably remember walking along along the passage to the hall at the back from the public bar ( light & bitter (1/10 pence) when the ‘Fish’was on our circuit of ‘cooks ferry’ inn Edmonton,Mondays and Thursdays, sometimes ‘Klooks Kleek” at the Railway Hotel pub in west Hampstead
    on Tuesday’s or Wednesdays ( I can’t remember which was which)an Friday was always always the ‘manor’ (Manor House pub next to the tube and now defunct, as is the pub.Afters would be the ‘all nighter’ at the flamingo in Wardour Street if we had any cash left and,as in ‘goodfellas’ traditional Saturday night homework with the girlfriend (not the ‘copa’, usually the pictures or a local party and Sunday night was laying in the bath listening to ’sing something simple’ at 7p.m.


    Reply to roger mudd

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