Goldbug Features

Tom Kiske, who has written several wonderful articles for this site, looks back at the music of his days at McKinley and the emergence of Rock & Roll. Tom, a 1961 graduate of McKinley, is the author of the book, "Time Has Its Own Terms", which includes many interesting reflections on the life and times in the Soulard neighborhood of the fifties and sixties where he grew up.

I'm sure you can hear a song today and be immediately taken back to an era of your youth that brings back many warm memories. It is this reflection that Tom writes about and indicates the impact the new music, that our parents hated, back when we felt immortal.

It Never Forgets
Just let me hear some of that Rock & Roll Music
Any old way you choose it
It’s got a back beat you _____ _____ it
Any old time you use it
Gotta be rock & roll music
If you wanna ____ ____ ____

Rock & Roll Music,” by Chuck Berry

The lyrics come back, don’t they? I’ll bet you had no trouble filling in the blanks above. We may not remember the capital of Honduras, be able to conjugate a Latin verb or factor a quadratic equation, but hum a few bars of a Golden Oldie and the words just spring into your mind like popping corn, still fresh after all those years. Everything I needed to know I learned from Rock & Roll. That was going to be the Fulghum-esque title of this article. After all, it wouldn’t be hard to make the case. We did learn a lot from the music of our era. Pick a topic:

American History: The Battle of New Orleans, (Please) Mr. Custer, even (ugh) The Ballad of Davey Crockett.
Foreign Languages: Italian- Nel Blu Dipinto Di Blu (Volare); Spanish- La Bomba; French- Chanson D’Amour (Art & Dottie Todd)
Math: 1-2-3, Look at Mr. Lee, 3-4-5, Look at him jive . . .
Paranormal phenomena: She’s Not There, by The Zombies
Humility: Kathy’s Clown, Everybody’s Somebody’s Fool
Fashion: Blue Suede Shoes, A White Sport Coat, Chantilly Lace, Blue Velvet and (of course) Itsy Bitsy Teeny Weeny Yellow Polka Dot Bikini
Agriculture: The Boll Weevil Song (Brook Benton)
Folklore: Stagger Lee, Big Bad John, Frankie and Johnnie, I Loves You, Porgy, Tom Dooley
Geography: North To Alaska, Kansas City, Walkin’ to New Orleans, 26 Miles (across the sea Santa Catalina is a-waitin for me . . .)
Caution: Lipstick On Your Collar
Mythology: Venus (Frankie Avalon), The Purple People Eater
Ambition: Get A Job
Hygiene: Splish Splash (Bobby Darin)
Philosophy: I May Never Pass This Way Again (Perry Como), Que Sera, Sera (Doris Day)
Health: Rockin Pneumonia and the Boogie Woogie Flu
Anatomy: The Happy Organ (Dave “Baby” Cortez)
Meteorology: The Wayward Wind (Gogi Grant)
Demographics: The Poor People of Paris (Les Baxter)
Religion: I Believe (Frankie Laine)

Well, you get the drift. You might even be able to come up with some better examples yourself. Admittedly, some of my choices might have the music purist screaming, “That’s not Rock & Roll!
So, who’s the expert on Rock & Roll? It’s sure as heck not the Program Director for the “Oldies” station, sitting somewhere in New York working for one of the multi-station mega-conglomerates that dominate radio today, running the same boring play list over and over. It’s not somebody who thinks a Madonna number from the 80's qualifies as an Oldie. I think the expert on Rock & Roll is us, the kids who were in school at the dawn of the Rock & Roll Era - the mid-Fifties. Not that it was the first or only music era. Before Rock & Roll we had the Swing Era, the Big Band Era, and a few years earlier, back when Lou Lewis was a kid, natives pounding on hollow logs in the jungle.

But something special happened sometime around 1955. Lots of folks will argue that R&R began with Bill Haley’s twin hits of 1954 - “Shake, Rattle and Roll,” and “Rock Around the Clock.” My personal touchstone is Elvis’s first million seller in 1956 - “Heartbreak Hotel.”

Maybe there is no magic defining moment or individual song that kicked off this radical new sound, but there’s no question something happened that transformed popular music from the kind of stuff you heard in 1953 - “You, You, You,” by the Ames Brothers, “Stranger in Paradise” by Tony Bennet & the Percy Faith Orchestra, and “Hi Lilli. Hi-Lo” by Leslie Caron - to Fats Domino bragging, “I found my thrill . . .,” James Brown as early as 1956 begging, “Please, Please, Please,” Chuck Berry shouting, “Up in the mornin’ and off to school,” and The Edsels enigmatically advising, “I’ve got a girl named Rama Lama, Rama Lama Ding Dong.”

Songs like these formed a sort of musical score to our lives - not just at sock hops and teen towns and concerts, but as a more-or-less continuous subtext to whatever we might be doing. Long before the “Walkman,” the transistor radio was what we carried, bringing our music with us as we walked to school, to football games, to summer jobs - wherever we went, whatever we did. Everybody has his or her favorites, and some of our memories are tied to songs. I remember Frannie P’s delightful routine to “Lollipop” at some of the McKinley “auds,” and Mike M being so taken by The Diamonds’ “Little Darlin” that he bought not just one, but a bunch of the 45's and gave them to friends just to promote the song’s popularity.

Even a kid with the proverbial two left feet could slow dance to Santo & Johnnie’s “Sleep Walk,” and our anti-establishment adolescent minds could readily identify with Gene Pitney’s “Town Without Pity.” Most of us would agree with Mickey and Sylvia that “Love is Strange,” leading us to conclude along with Smokey Robinson & The Miracles, that the best approach might be to “Shop Around.” Still, late at night, listening to WIL or KATZ, we might be tempted to call the station, request a song and tell the DJ, like The Shirelles, “This is dedicated to the one I love.”

There was even a subversive plot among certain members of the Class of June, ‘61 to go down the aisle at graduation doing “The Stroll.” To my eternal regret, we all chickened out at the last minute. Bet there isn’t one of us who doesn’t wish now that we’d gone through with that whimsical plan. Heck, it really wasn’t that radical. I mean, it’s not like we were gonna cross the stage doing the Mashed Potatoes, the Watusi, or (God forbid) the Funky Chicken.

Then there was Johnny Mathis. I once saw a liner note to the effect that “More stuff was gotten listening to Johnny Mathis than anyone else in history.” I had to smile when I read that blurb. Maybe you’re smiling right now. Sounds about right, doesn’t it? What sometimes amazes me is the staying power of Rock & Roll. Okay, it’s not yet shown the longevity muscle of Beethoven or Mozart, but we’ve been rocking for fifty years now. Half a century. This is the awful racket about which our parents used to yell, “Turn that shit down!” Chuck Berry still sells out concerts. Folks flock to Graceland. And they’re still making Top 40 Rock & Roll hits by the score in the Twenty-First Century. Why wouldn’t they? What’s the alternative? Well, of course . . . there’s Alternative Rock.

More than the continuing appeal of our music, tho, is this: I defy anyone from the Fifties or Sixties - even those of us now condemned to wearing the “relaxed fit” jeans - to listen to the Isley’s “Twist and Shout,” and sit still. Can’t be done. You gotta move your body. Bob Seger sure had it right a few years later - “Rock & Roll Never Forgets.” Of course you might have the same problem remaining motionless to Count Basie’s “One O’Clock Jump” and I don’t mean to slight the songs of earlier times. As I’ve grown older, I’ve learned to appreciate those Super Oldies more. Billy Eckstine’s “I Apologize,” Glen Miller’s “In The Mood” or “String of Pearls,” “Cherokee,” by Charlie Barnet , Duke Ellington’s “Caravan” - there’s no end to the list.

But it’s not just what’s inherent in the songs themselves that makes them so compelling. It’s that we personalize them, make them our own. We learned from them - maybe not Everything We Needed To Know, but perhaps more than we thought. I think music is a form of poetry - the message is not just what the artist intended, but also the listener’s interpretation and associations. You hear an oldie, it jolts you right out of today and it brings . . . it . . . all . . . back . . . in a way mere words on a page can never fully evoke. You’re there again. You’re eighteen, young and strong and unafraid. Everything’s new. The world is ahead of you and there’s not a damn thing you can’t do or won’t try. It’s a great feeling, a great place to be. And the really nice thing is that you can go there any time you want.

Just put on some of the old ones.
Crank up the volume.
And rock on.

--Tom Kiske