Ted Newcomb (tcn) Wed 11 Jan 17 17:53
We are fortunate to have Ed Ward with us to talk about his newest book The History of Rock and Role - Volume 1 (1920-1963). Ed Ward has been writing since he was 16, predominantly about music, for just about every music magazine published in the United States and a couple elsewhere, starting with Broadside in 1965, Crawdaddy! in 1967, and a short-lived editorial job at Rolling Stone in 1970. His appearance as one of the writers of Rock of Ages: The Rolling Stone Hisory of Rock & Roll in 1986 got him a job as "rock historian" for a new NPR program, Fresh Air with Terry Gross, a position he still holds. He is also the author of Michael Bloomfield: The Rise and Fall of an American Guitar Hero (1983), which was reissued with a lot of new material last year, and two short books published on Kindle. From 1993 to 2013, he lived in Berlin and the south of France, but returned to Austin to write the two-volume History of Rock & Roll. He's been a member of the Well since 2001. Leading our conversation will be Mark McDonough. Mark has been a denizen of the Well for almost 30 years. He has been a music fan since early childhood, and grew up listening to a wide variety of mostly non-rock music (his parents were more into folk and classical). When he was old enough to start buying records, he began with the early Rolling Stones and moved forward and backwards from there (you see they had these things called records with labels listing the names of the people who wrote the songs...). He was a whole-hog fan of "Underground" FM radio in the late 60s and early 70s, briefly practiced the art as a college DJ, and tried to revive and update the idea in the early 1980s with a far too early satellite radio venture. In recent years, he's been listening to a wide variety of mostly American popular music from about 1935 to 1985, everything from outlaw country to Frank Sinatra. Take it away boys...and a one, and a two, and...
Ed Ward (captward) Wed 11 Jan 17 18:05
Great typo up there, Ted: Rock & Role sounds like some sort of cosplay.
Ted Newcomb (tcn) Thu 12 Jan 17 04:14
Aargh...wish we had an editor...tho it does work, doesn't it? Please address that later...the shift from just the music to performance art and role play -- thinking Marilyn Manson, David Bowie, Kiss, etc. and of course, the first, Little Richard!
Mark McDonough (mcdee) Thu 12 Jan 17 04:44
I'm happy to toss out the first question - and I promise I will make absolutely no typos (hah!). Why did you pick 1920 as a starting point? If you're a rock & roll fan, there are some pretty obvious things to listen to and learn about starting in the early 1950s (for example Jump Blues or Muddy Waters), but what important things were going on between 1920 and 1950?
Ed Ward (captward) Thu 12 Jan 17 09:06
Well, the simple answer is that I had to start somewhere. When I did Rock of Ages, where I covered the beginning through 1960, more or less, I sort of did a soft fade-in from the days of Stephen Foster, which was a mess. There's always the "but wait: before that..." moment, so I decided that the release of Mamie Smith's "Crazy Blues," which wasn't a blues, but was a black woman singing in front of a black band produced by a black A&R guy and went on to sell a million copies in its first year of release was a good place to start. Americans were already aware of black music, and had been ever since the turn of the century when James Reece Europe's orchestra recorded some cylinders and backed up Vernon and Irene Castle, the fashionable white couple who pioneered social dancing. It's just that nobody thought that records of the post-Europe bands would sell, and anything *too* black would only sell to blacks. Perry Bradford (who was in charge of Mamie's session) proved them wrong and started off a rush to find other blues singing women in hopes they'd make it happen again. Other things I also wanted to steer away from were jazz, which was a popular music, and musical theater, which had been featuring all-black shows (for integrated audiences) in New York since the late 19th century. These strands built up the popular music that the more folk-inflected post WW II black and hillbilly music that gave birth to rock and roll was reacting against. Very few jazz fans credited any blues musicians as having any interest at all, despite T-Bone Walker's being a bit of an exception.
Mark McDonough (mcdee) Thu 12 Jan 17 10:16
T-Bone Walker seems to be the great exception to every rule! As a naïve young person growing up in the 1960s and 70s, I was shocked to learn that he had done the playing the guitar behind the back thing decades before Hendrix. I thought we'd invented everything. Like many kids in that era, I first heard the name in the famous stoned introduction to "Stormy Monday" on the Allmans Live at the Fillmore... "we're gonna to play this old Bobby Bland song for you... actually it's a T-Bone Walker song..." So we're randomly going from the macro to the micro, but maybe you can clear up the mystery of T-Bone Walker. What were his roots in the pre-WW II music era and how does he fit into the picture?
Ed Ward (captward) Thu 12 Jan 17 11:07
I actually don't know much about him except that he, along with Charlie Christian, was an early exponent of the electric guitar, beyond the polite strumming most jazz musicians used it for. In this, he's the electric Lonnie Johnson, another blues musician who played "serious" jazz but opted for a more lucrative show-bizzy career. I really should read Helen Dance's biography of him. The fact that she was married to jazz writer Stanley Dance did a lot to elevate Walker's profile with the white jazz community.
Mark McDonough (mcdee) Thu 12 Jan 17 11:20
Speaking of which, one of the things I enjoyed about the book is the way you lay out the connections between people and describe how those connections influenced the development of musicians, labels, and careers. For example, that's a pretty non-obvious connection. T-Bone Walker's biographer was married to a prominent jazz writer, thus he got a lot of ink in the white jazz fan world - which could actually be why (aside from that wonderful introduction) my level of curiosity about him was raised. Your book is full of things like that. How in the world did you connect all those dots?
Ed Ward (captward) Thu 12 Jan 17 11:50
Well, I'm very sensitive to patterns, and I've also been reading the music trade press for about 50 years, since Paul Williams pointed out how crucial it was to understanding what we saw in record stores back when I was at Crawdaddy! in '67. Also, by now, I know how this story turns out, so that I see things developing before anyone could know that's what they were doing, and things also pop out at me. I've been fascinated by J. Mayo "Ink" Williams, a Chicago hustler who presented himself to Paramount Records in the '20s as a expert on All Things Negro -- which he wasn't, but he was far better than whoever was scouting black talent out there for them. And, of course, he was black. I've read that he went to Brown University, and that he had a short career in the NFL, both rather odd details, and I know that he up and quit at Paramount suddenly one day. So when I was paging through the early pages of Robert Gordon's excellent biography of Muddy Waters, I discovered that Muddy's first recording session in Chicago was strumming chords behind an undistinguished blues singer in front of a Dixieland-type band and that the session was produced by...J. Mayo "Ink" Williams! Or, much later on, the odd circumstances of John Dolphin's murder. Not that he was shot by a songwriter who he owed $250 to -- with a slimeball like Dolphin that sort of goes without saying -- but that there were three white kids waiting to see Dolphin, two of whom were Sandy "Let There Be Drums" Nelson and Bruce Johnston, future Beach Boy.
Mark McDonough (mcdee) Sun 15 Jan 17 15:00
The story of J. Mayo "Ink" Williams was also fascinating to me because I truly cannot even begin to fathom how in the world a Black person in that era would have made it into Brown, which I attended in the 1970s due to a momentary lapse in judgment on their part. They were no more prejudiced than any other Ivy League university of their day, maybe even less than some, but let's just say that affirmative action wasn't exactly in full swing. Did you ever figure out what factors got him into an Ivy League college. Wealthy family...?
Ed Ward (captward) Sun 15 Jan 17 15:25
There needs to be a book, but I fear that a lot of important information is lost. For that matter, was there an NFL in the nineteen-teens?
Ted Newcomb (tcn) Sun 15 Jan 17 16:18
Ed, when did you first fall in love with Rock and Roll? Was it a particular album or what? And when did you know you were going to write about it?
Mark McDonough (mcdee) Sun 15 Jan 17 19:53
College football was huge in the 19-teens. The NFL was an afterthought until after WW II. I met someone who played in the NFL in the 1940s who couldn't have been much taller than 5' 7" - different times. Speaking of which, just to be clear, I didn't mean to slur my alma mater in terms of its behavior in the 1970s. I was just surprised that any Black person would have attended an Ivy League college in the early 20th century.
Mark McDonough (mcdee) Sun 15 Jan 17 20:03
And thanks, Ted, for bringing us back to the subject!
Ed Ward (captward) Mon 16 Jan 17 09:25
Ted: Album? Are you kidding? As near as I can make out, there was a new kid in my class in 1957, and he, like me, was an outsider. One day he invited me over to his house, which was between the school and my house, and he told me that his brother had just bought a motorcycle and was going to be "a rock," a term I've almost never heard elsewhere. In order to keep up, he said, we should listen to some of the records his sister had, particularly because she wasn't home at the moment. So we snuck into her room and played some of them. I remember Elvis, probably "Heartbreak Hotel," as groaning in an echo chamber and didn't see the point, which disappointed me after seeing his image in the press, but I would up buying "Honeycomb" by Jimmy Rogers, and, later, "At the Hop" by Danny and the Juniors. I also left that session with the knowledge that WINS 1010 played this stuff all day and night long. Since I'd tried and failed to get interested in sports, tracking the WINS (and WMCA) charts as records rose and fell took that place in my psyche, but I never thought analytically about any of this until much later.
Ed Ward (captward) Mon 16 Jan 17 09:28
As for writing about it, I just knew I wanted to write, and got my chance when, in my first weeks in college at the age of 16, I contributed a piece to New York's Broadside magazine, a folkie mag that published lead sheets of protest songs (and, I found out much later, was run by real live CPUSA Communists!), and they printed it. I wanted to write fiction and other stuff, but I'd take anything I could get. Hell, maybe someday I'd get into the Village Voice!
Ted Newcomb (tcn) Mon 16 Jan 17 09:41
:) Funny how we all came to it differently. Remember those little AM pocket radios? Used to go to bed with mine...my folks had just gotten divorced and we moved to Florida and the first song I heard, the first night in my new room, was Sillouette, sung by the Rays, and I was hooked...Elvis came out with his Christmas album, which my grandmother sent me as a present, and we were all dancing in the street. 1957 Music was pretty much AM and regional then. We moved to North Carolina where I fell in love with Bluegrass and remember winning a dance contest in Jr. High to The Sea of Love, by Phil Phillips...everyone dressed like Jimmy Dean in those days, rolled white T-shirts, cuffed blue jeans and carrying a knife, and talking cars, cars, cars. High school, we moved to Virginia, just outside of D.C. and FM became a thing, but still regional. I remember my cousin moving to Tacoma, Washington and when we would compare music we were listening to it was completely different...then came Wolf Man Jack and that station out of NYC...huge antennas...and then we were all listening to the same music...and Dick Clark and Ed Sullivan of course... That's kind of my progression of Rock and Roll as I recall...but I was raised on jazz. My dad was an extraordinary jazz pianist and I devoured his record collection, took piano lessons, and I would play the top and he would play the bottom on the keyboard. Completely hooked on the sound, still am... Sorry to blather on, but I imagine we all come into this music differently. When meeting someone for the first time it's one of the questions I always ask. What music did your parents listen to? What was the first record, album or CD you stole? What was the first one you actually bought?
Ted Newcomb (tcn) Mon 16 Jan 17 09:45
I suppose you will get to the forks in the road toward the end of this discussion. Rock and Roll meant a very particular set of music...easy to find in the record stores, easy to find the ONE station playing it...NOW, good Gopod, the sub-genres are insane...don't know how anyone keeps up with it... Don't think Rock and Roll can every be considered 'pure' as it came from its own roots, which you so nicely document. But all we had to keep up with was Rock and Folk Rock up until 1963.
Mark McDonough (mcdee) Mon 16 Jan 17 10:21
I also benefited greatly from radio and from a friend with two great advantages: his family had some money and he had a bunch of older siblings who were into music. In our house, albums were for grown-ups. I do remember hearing one of the Beatles' first singles in the US, completely freaking out, and asking my parents to buy the record. That was a flat "no." The first album I ever actually bought was "Beggar's Banquet," which I was originally planning to give as a birthday gift to a girl I liked. My parents said they'd heard the Rolling Stones' music was kind of dirty, though, so I ended up giving her "Crimson and Clover" by Tommy James and the Shondells and keeping "Beggars" for myself. A wise choice overall. So Ed, recognizing that when some people reading this will hear our tales of listening to Elvis and the Beatles when they first arrived on the scene and marvel in part at how freakin' old we are (grin)... What would be some good starting points for someone who's familiar with more recent music but would like to explore the roots of rock?
Ari Davidow (ari) Mon 16 Jan 17 10:28
On another track entirely, I think part of what I enjoyed about the book was the ability to put a lot of disconnected strands into context. I grew up in a religious household and began listening to music in my last year of high school, and went from there to Israel, where I encountered people with record collections that reflected their favorites, mostly from the 1960s. It was quite an education, and probably the reason that I found out about a lot of bands and musicians who will be covered in the next volume. For me, a lot of this was creating context. I'll echo what <mcdee> said about following the streams of who was doing what where and how that influenced things--it is sort of like looking at a map of who worked where in Silicon Valley and being able see the pot bubbling not as a random set of new companies, but watching the influence of one thing, or one producer or songwriter or musician on others and then how things bounced off each other and cascaded in a great pinball leading up to what we now know as rock 'n' roll. It's a great approach, and so much better to looking at fad by fad or what was popular year by year. How did you know to organize things this way, or is it just obvious to anyone trying to make sense of it all?
David Wilson (dlwilson) Mon 16 Jan 17 14:01
Speaking of 1957 when I was 10years old, was when I first became aware of rock n' roll. I remember the Platters and Fats Domino as the first black artists that were played on the radio. I think American Bandstand was up and running at the time too and Dick Clark brought on black artists. Ed, could you talk about the regional nature of the music and how distribution determined who got to hear what and when;and the impact of how the segregated radio played in the history of rock and roll? And how in hell did that change?
Ted Newcomb (tcn) Mon 16 Jan 17 14:10
And how, as soon as we all started dancing with our black neighbors, they 'invented' Pat Boone and Ricky Nelson.
Jon Lebkowsky (jonl) Mon 16 Jan 17 17:32
I was a pre-adolescent jazz nerd, and my brother brought rock and roll into the house via 45s at first, and then LPs. I was activated by Buddy Holly, then The Beatles, then The Rolling Stones. White guys. The jazz performers I'd been into were black - Duke Ellington, Miles Davis, etc. I'd met Duke Ellington when I was 15, in fact, and thought he was (not Duke but) King. It took awakening hormones to pull be over into the rock & roll camp. I saw myself as a writer, and when I was 19 or so, I wrote a review of Shiva's Headband and sent it to Rolling Stone. Got a very nice rejection letter saying my reviews should concentrate more on the music... signed by Ed Ward. I didn't follow up, oddly... I was drawn away from journalism to literature. But I was reading and absorbing Rolling Stone and Crawdaddy, a voyage of discovery, you might say. I'm interested in hearing more about Paul Williams and Crawdaddy, and their impact on writing about rock. Also Richard Meltzer and _The Aesthetics of Rock_, a notably weird book that resonated on some level when it was fresh.
Ed Ward (captward) Mon 16 Jan 17 17:41
* Starting points. Somewhere along the line, Paste magazine put together a playlist of every song mentioned in the book, which I think is a heroic achievement. However, I just went looking for it in my bookmarks and can't find it. I'll keep looking. Generally, though, my advice would be to start reading and when something hits your curiosity, go find it. Pretty soon, you'll be able to figure genres you like, sounds you want to hear more of, and so you'll pursue them. As always, I recommend physical CDs or LPs for closer-up investigations, because they have metadata (and liner notes!) that'll suggest other things to listen to.
Ed Ward (captward) Mon 16 Jan 17 17:43
* Organization: Actually, as I tell people, I was at least partially there for much of this stuff, at least after that memorable listening session in '57, and so I know how the story went and how it turned out. I also had much better reference books than before, including chart listings, and I read -- or skimmed the good parts of -- Billboard magazine from about 1950 to 1963.
Ed Ward (captward) Mon 16 Jan 17 17:54
* Regionalism: Nobody gave a thought to that at the time and it wasn't until much later, when I started meeting people from outside the New York area in college, that I realized that our childhood soundscapes were all different. I'm a great fan of black harmony group singing (which is why I don't demean it by calling it "doo-wop"), and hearing the regional differences between New York, Chicago, and LA styles really enlightened me. You didn't have to sell nationwide to make good money, and early on, R&B labels knew that, but with the advent of Gordon McLendon's "top 40" fomat and the nationwide broadcast of American Bandstand, that all changed. Now you really *did* need to make it onto the playlists of influential stations, and particularly the all-rock-and-roll stations, Radio, though, wasn't segregated early on: in the very beginning, advertisers bought airtime to sponsor programs, and if your record store bought a half-hour on a clear-channel station, as Randy's Records and Ernie's Music Mart did on WLAC in Nashville in the not-too-expensive late-night hours, and then offered packages with current hits (and not-so-current flops) cheaply enough, and if all of those records were by black artists, you could start to change tastes. *Everyone* listend to LAC, because they played a lot of hot blues and saxophone instrumentals, which is what black people in the south listened to. Segregation came about 1970, and was perpetrated by hippies. See Vol. 2.
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