Take out the papers and the trash!
When I was a kid -- and I mean a little kid of 3 or 4 -- I had teenage cousins who got me into rock 'n' roll. They'd give me some of their 45s when they grew tired of them, and of course, to me it was all new. The very first one they handed down -- Chuck Berry's "Sweet Little Sixteen" on the blue Chess label -- was followed up by Jerry Lee Lewis's "Great Balls of Fire" on the yellow Sun label and Little Richard's "Good Golly Miss Molly" on the yellow, black and white Specialty. In addition to dancing and singing, I'd stare at the turntable as it spun those records round and round.
Pretty soon I was watching "American Bandstand," televised live from Philadelphia, and buying my own records at Two Guys from Harrison, the local discount store. Under my parents' influence, there was some stuff by Connie Francis and the Diamonds thrown in, and it being "Down Neck" Newark, the Four Seasons were represented, but there were always a couple of straight-ahead rock 'n' roll numbers lying around. I knew "Hound Dog" by heart -- at least, the words that I could make out on the primitive hi-fi equipment of the day.
One oddity was my total aversion to playing the records at the wrong speed. If anyone did that, I would scream and cry unconsolably. Especially since I enjoyed the Chipmunks, a novelty act based on that very recording technique, this was quirky indeed. So much so that the same cousins would occasionally set me off for their adolescent amusement. (I eventually outgrew this little pocket of fear.)
My careers as an amateur DJ and accountant sprouted then, too. I kept all my 45s in a box, and put a little number sticker on each single. In the front of the box was a directory form, with handwritten entries (done by my parents at first) keyed to the numbers. Most of the contents of that box disappeared in my law school years -- I know where they went, and it's an interesting topic for another post -- but to this day I still have my copies of "Who's Sorry Now" (no. 39) , Joey Dee's cover of "Shout" (no. 5), "Beep Beep" by the Playmates (no. 19), and some others. I see a number 78 in here, so the box must have held 100. Maybe there were two boxes of 50, but I wanted a single numbering system. Anyway, by the time I was 8 or 9 I was recording my own radio shows on a reel-to-reel tape recorder in my room. Hours and hours of playing records and trying to sound like those New York DJs from WABC.
One of the key groups from the earliest days of this story was the Coasters. For a kiddie rocker, this was the perfect group. Rockin', melodic, and funny. Between "Charlie Brown" and "Yakety Yak," these guys were in heavy rotation on the old tube-powered record player in the bedroom I shared with my brother, while my cousins could be expected to have "Searchin'" blasting on my uncle's big stereo in the living room of his apartment upstairs. The Coasters' fine singing was punctuated by awesome sax solos by King Curtis. Parents and kids alike danced and laughed. Beautiful noise.
Yesterday I read in the paper that one of the four members of the Coasters has passed away. Billy Guy, the baritone who took the lead on several of the group's big numbers, died on Tuesday in his apartment in Las Vegas. He was 66. The New York Times obituary can be found here.
Remembrances of the legendary bi-coastal group always include reminders of how much fun the group's work was. Leiber and Stoller, the songwriting pair whose songs catapulted many rock 'n' roll acts to stardom, were quoted in the early '90s as saying:
Of all the record sessions we ever produced, the ones with the Coasters were the most fun. They were fun to work with; they were fun to be with; they were a great bunch of clowns, and they made our songs sing.Guy himself said: "We had more fun than any other group."
It was infectious.
Having a bad day? Get the Rhino CD "The Very Best of the Coasters," and put it in the player. Press "play." The day will get a little better.
On the same page of The Times is a story about the death of Billy Mitchell, the tenor and lead singer from the group the Clovers, who had a big hit with Leiber and Stoller's "Love Potion No. 9." Mitchell, who also sang lead on "Your Cash Ain't Nothin' But Trash," left us on November 5 from Washington, D.C., where he lived. (No doubt the Times found out about Mitchell's passing when it was researching the Guy obit.)
I hope that wherever these guys are, they've got 'em laughin' and rockin'.
My friend Fred and I are always phoning each other to note the passing of R&B legends. There have been many such phone calls in the past 10 years or so, and I'm sure we'll talk about Guy and Mitchell soon. But for some reason, this time around, the memories of that Down Neck four-plex and me as that little kid with the record player have come screaming back.
Especially the teenage cousins and grownups who danced, sang, and laughed with little me. Now that I've got my own kid showing many of the same tendencies, I am so grateful for the rock 'n' roll hand-me-downs that I got. As Stevie Wonder put it in a song that was a clear tribute to the Coasters: "I wish those days could come back once more / Why did those days ever have to go? / 'Cause I loved them so..."
UPDATE: Fred writes:
There was actually a third big loss this week. Johnny Griffith of the Funk Brothers, previously part of the backup band at Motown. Be sure to read today's review in the WSJ of the new documentary, "Standing in the Shadows of Motown." Thanks, Fred. And so we shall. Sounds like a real rockin' time up in the clouds tonight!