Wissot: Rock ‘n’ roll never leaves your soul
My earliest memories of music are associated with listening to rock ‘n’ roll on the radio in the mid-1950s. Rock ‘n’ roll evolved from “race” music, so named because for decades it was played exclusively on black radio stations catering to predominantly black listeners. But then, crossover white singers, most notably Elvis and Jerry Lee Lewis, brought the rhythm and blues music of black artists, like Little Richard and Chuck Berry, to the attention of an entire generation of prepubescent white boys like myself.
While tuned in to the most popular rock ‘n’ roll radio stations in New York City hosted by outrageous shock jocks like Alan Freed and my favorite “Cousin Brucie” — aka Bruce Morrow — I listened to Frankie Lyman and the Teenagers singing “Why Do Fools Fall in Love?“ and Little Anthony and the Imperials doo-wopping “Tears on My Pillow.”
When I got to high school, I discovered the soulfulness of Ben E. King, Marvin Gaye, Sam Cooke and Berry Gordy’s Motown sound. The Shirelles’ “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow” was on the radio when my buddies and I cruised Cedar Lane in Teaneck, New Jersey, hoping to pick up girls willing to hop into a car with testosterone-fueled boys provided they had a quarter to help pay for gas.
In “Captain Jack,” Billy Joel sings about a heroin dealer who transports his customers to a “special island,” one that serves as a temporary refuge from reality. Music can offer a much safer psychedelic high via the poignancy of a lyric or a melody laconically drifting from the notes played on a horn.
I’ve had many such moments in my life. Here are some of my favorites.
In an intimate jazz club named Smoke on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, a young man walked in with a trumpet in his hand a little after midnight and joined a jam session that had just begun. When his turn came, he blew into his instrument and out came “Bye Bye Blackbird.” I sat in my chair surrendering to feelings of peace and serenity and sadness and joy which I’d give a whole lot of my disposable income to revisit on a regular basis today.
A similar experience happened on “free red beans and rice night” at Vaughn’s, a bar in the Bywater neighborhood of New Orleans catering to some of the best jazz musicians in the city. On a dimly-lit stage, a tall, thin, young trombone player played a scintillating rendition of “Somewhere Over The Rainbow.” The notes emitted were so haunting that if the late Judy Garland had been in the audience she would have surely applauded his bravura performance.
My interest in jazz grew out of my desire to know more about the origins of rock ’n’ roll. One night, again in New Orleans, I was able to marry my adolescent affection for rock ’n’ roll with my adult passion for jazz. Fats Domino had died a week before and a tribute to the local rock ’n’ roll legend was scheduled while I was still in town. In New Orleans there is only one way to honor a musician who has died: You hold a parade.
And not just any old parade but a Second Line parade where musicians of varying talents from all over the city come together and play traditional jazz chestnuts like “When the Saints Come Marching In.” The parade began at the aforementioned Vaughn’s with the crowd singing and dancing to Antoine Domino’s “Blueberry Hill” and “Ain’t That A Shame” before finishing five miles later at Fats’ bright yellow house on Caffin Ave. in the city’s Lower Ninth Ward.
In another music city, Memphis, historic epicenter for the Mississippi Delta blues, I visited Beale Street, once home to great blues musicians but now a tawdry tourist strip of rundown bars and kitschy clubs. I stumbled by accident onto the last real juke joint on the strip, Blues Hall, and sat down to listen to a black female blues singer and her band. She belted out a few classic Bessie Smith numbers and then startled me by singing Prince’s “ Purple Rain,” not exactly a blues standard.
I got over my surprise immediately because she put so much of herself into the song that I was moved not once, not twice, but three times to leap from my seat and drop singles and fives into the tip jar on the stage. I did it out of a sense of spontaneous duty. She was that good and deserved every last dollar I gave her.
Music has given me some of my life’s most treasured memories. They have survived while other less significant moments have deteriorated and decayed and succumbed to the relentless vicissitudes of time. I am left with the best of what mattered the most. I never cared if the music was R&B, jazz, the blues because I agreed with Billy Joel: “ Hot funk, cool punk, even if it’s old junk, it’s still rock ’n’ roll to me.”
Jay Wissot is a resident of Denver and Vail. Email him at email@example.com.
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