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.