Memphis Minute(s) - December 7
Mystery! Drama! Intrigue! Everything a good movie is all about, right? Well, the plots in these two movies released one year apart did not drive this story. As early jukebox musicals - highlighting the musical performances contained in the work - the simple plots of teen angst and wants are merely backdrops for the great music featured in both. The first, the performers worth whatever price they would charge if it were a 1956 concert - featured Chuck Berry, Dion and the Belmonts, Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers, and others, including a trio fronted by an ex-boxer from Memphis with one of the Memphis Black family (no, not THAT Black) on bass. The second featured Dick Clark as a music show host when he was just starting a show in real life in Philadelphia, Fats Domino, Frankie Avalon, Count Basie, and a couple of stars from Sun Records. One of them was given a choice of songs as the bigger star.
Johnny and Dorsey Burnette of Memphis met up with Paul Burlison of Brownsville - in boxing gyms. They were all competitive amateur fighters. When Johnny decided to turn pro, he got a few dollars and a broken nose, so he decided to turn professional musician. They had been playing some music, but had no success in Memphis so they moved to New York where they were signed as The Rock and Roll Trio but still no real success, despite recording a legacy rock version of “Train Kept A-Rollin'”. A combination of touring life and the addition of drummer led to the brothers parting ways - don’t all rock band brothers? When they picked up a fourth, the record company renamed them Johnny Burnette and the Rock and Roll Trio. Dorsey left and came back to Memphis. But the trio were scheduled to appear in a movie-what should they do? They found a new bass player in Memphis - Johnny Black, younger brother to Elvis’ hit-making bassist Bill Black. So, as just The Rock and Roll Trio, Johnny Burnette and Johnny Black of Memphis appeared with Paul Burlison in the 1956 rock and roll showcase performing "Lonesome Train (On A Lonesome Track)" in ‘Rock!Rock!Rock!’
The stage was set. The soon-to-be disgraced Alan Freed (by the payola scandals) had moved to New York. But an “old” teenager was coming up fast. Dick Clark had just taken over ‘Bandstand’ which would become THE show about popular music for over 30 years. With the rise of rock, the same producer would make another movie. With Clark playing a show host, 1957’s ‘Jamboree!’ fed the rivalry and with another sappy plot featured some of the era’s great music. Count Basie’s Orchestra featured jazz singer Joe Williams, Frankie Avalon sang about a high school crush in “Teacher’s Pet,” Connie Francis actually sang the lead female teen’s songs, and Sun Studio’s Carl Perkins and Jerry Lee Lewis appeared with a Sun “smash” and a “not so much” (respective reversal on purpose). Carl Perkins learned to play guitar from an African-American field hand in Tiptonville Tennessee, while he listened to country music. When the family moved a ways south, Perkins listened to early R&B and rock. He was drinking and singing and fighting as a teen in the roadhouses around Jackson Tennessee when he put it all together. He came to see Sam Phillips and soon he was recording and traveling around Memphis and the region with Elvis and Johnny Cash. In 1955 he wrote a song about a fashionable foot covering. While on tour to support that record he and his band were in an accident. As he recuperated in New York, Elvis recorded that little ditty. Though Perkins original was a bigger hit on multiple charts at the time, Elvis’ cover of “Blue Suede Shoes” is better known to the masses.
Jimmy Swaggart and his cousin were religious hell raisers. Jerry Lee Lewis struggled with his identity - Swaggart went a different route but the hell raiser in him showed up later. New York songwriter Jack Hammer (Earl Solomon Burroughs) had an idea for a song but it was turned over to fellow New Yorker Otis Blackwell (Fever, Breathless, Don’t be Cruel) for some new lyrics. In rehearsals for the song Lewis is torn, with Phillips telling him that music can save souls. In a tale of two artists, when it came to the movie the bigger star - Carl Perkins - was offered his choice of two songs. He didn’t think much of either, but recorded “Glad All Over” (NOT the Dave Clark Five song you know, but one written by Aaron Schroeder, Sid Tepper, and Roy Bennett, who between them wrote It’s Now or Never, It’s My Party, and a host of soundtrack songs for Elvis. Jerry Lee Lewis got the second choice - an alternative version of Blackwell’s killer classic “Great Balls of Fire” which of course sold over a million copies in the first ten days of the Sun release - the version we know. As if that wasn’t enough drama from the contributing Memphis artists, it was Jerry Lee’s last rock #1, as he decided to keep it in the family by marrying his teenage cousin that year and was blacklisted by everyone - except Alan Freed. Carl Perkins “Glad All Over” went on to influence some young British musicians, especially a quiet one named George, who sang lead on his group’s version for their live ‘BBC Sessions.’ But it was the “King of Rockabilly’s last recording for Sun Records.
All of this drama unfolded on December 7. ‘Rock!Rock!Rock’ was released on this day in 1956 and ‘Jamboree!’ sixty years ago today on December 7, 1957, featuring native Memphians and musicians who were drawn here by the magical Sun.