Friday, November 13, 2015

the audience seemed unprepared

----------------------------- [excerpt, The Chitlin' Circuit] ------------------- Though the white trade press would dub the new sounds rhythm and blues, black music had begun to rock.  The new sound spread quickly along a specific geography, and occurred hyperactively in Houston, New Orleans, and in between....

Though no single rock innovator, birthplace, or inaugural record should be irrefutably claimed, the music followed a few key performers, and Don Robey's Bronze Peacock immediately became a major hub for rock 'n' roll's early businesspeople and artists.

Joe Turner honed his vocal power while singing and slinging suds in a Kansas City bar during Prohibition.  Breaking over the din, the toasts, and fights, Turner's voice became, in Nick Tosches' term, "oceanic." 

John Hammond, the best white friend black music ever had, pitched a party like no other, the Spirituals to Swing concert, on December 23,


at New York City's Carnegie Hall. 

There Joe reunited with Pete Johnson, the Kansas City pianist who had provided much lightning to his thunder since the Vine Street speakeasy days.  Joe sang that night as he did in the barroom, without a microphone. 

His song predicted Arthur Crudup's 1946 "That's Alright Mama," a tune we wouldn't be talking about if not for the rendition Elvis Presley recorded in Memphis in 1954,

the greaser's debut on commercial wax.  The title refrain goes back, at least, to Little Brother Montgomery.  Do you remember him?  Walter Barnes used to crash at [a place] in Jackson when touring south Mississippi in the chitlin' circuit's earliest days. 

Little Brother recorded "Something Keeps A-Worryin' Me" in October 1936 (less than two months before the midget maestro reappeared on the Jackson stroll), which includes what became, nearly verbatim, the opening stanza of Crudup's, and later Presley's version of, "That's Alright Mama." 

And even before Crudup adapted the theme, Louis Jordan recorded "It's a Low-Down Dirty Shame" in July 1942, which includes the same stanza.  The obvious question becomes, did the "That's all right..." theme originate with Little Brother Montgomery? 

I don't doubt that it came from such a gifted, prolific writer, but I can't prove it either.  That answer was embedded in long-decayed slats of Vicksburg cathouses and turpentine camp commissaries from Natchez to Hattiesburg.

"That's alright, baby, that's alright for you," Joe belted across Carnegie Hall.  He would work variations of the melody and delivery of the song he performed at Spirituals to Swing into his own epochal 1954 recording you may have heard of, "Shake, Rattle and Roll."  Joe clapped the fast beat, hooted, and bulged his big eyes in disbelief as Pete's fingers flew across the keys.  "Roll 'em boy," Joe sang, "let 'em jump for joy."

Fifteen years before rock 'n' roll appeared as a pop-music marketing term, Joe Turner, an illiterate bootleg barkeep, laid the music down in Carnegie Hall. 

The audience seemed unprepared.  He called, "Yes, yes," to them but got no response.  "Well alright then?" he bellowed.  Nothing.  Clearly, Joe and his audience this night had hung out in different speakeasies.  They politely applauded as he sang "we gone" and Pete banged the last note. 

Later, Joe joined up with a man who knew where to find crowds that could "yes, yes" and "alright then" at the appropriate time. 

Denver Ferguson booked Turner into Don Robey's Bronze Peacock on the club's first weekend, February 22, 1946. 

Joe stood on the brand new Peacock stage, a high-buffed hardwood slab that shined like a bowling lane, and hollered "My Gal's a Jockey," his current version of the motif that would become

"Shake, Rattle and Roll." ---------------------- [end excerpt]

{The Chitlin' Circuit
And the Road to Rock 'n' Roll
by Preston Lauterbach.  W.W. Norton & Company, New York, London - 2011.}


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