Click on the headline to link to a YouTube film clip of Bill Haley and The Comets performing Rock Around The Clock to aid a little flavor to this entry.
Over the past several years I, seemingly, have endlessly gone back to my early musical roots in reviewing many classic (ouch!, ouch for times long gone and well-remembered) rock series that have gone under the general title The Rock ‘n’ Roll Era. And while time and ear have eroded the sparkle of some of the lesser tunes from that period it still seems obvious that those years, say 1955-58, really did form the musical jail break-out for my generation, the generation of ’68, who had just started to tune into music.
Their mad forget the cold war red scare music, not their parents’ Benny Goodman, Bing Crosby, Patti Page, Peggy Lee music from World War II times. Ugh!
And we, we small time punk in the old-fashioned sense of that word, we hardly wet behind the ears elementary school kids, and that is all we were for those who are now claiming otherwise, listened our ears off. Those were strange times indeed in that be-bop 1950s night when stuff happened, kid’s stuff, but still stuff like a friend of mine, not Billie who I will talk about later, who claimed in 1956, with a straight face to the girls, that he was Elvis’ long lost son. Did the girls do the math on that one? Or, maybe, they, like us more brazen boys were hoping, hoping and praying that it was true despite the numbers, so they too could be washed by that flamed-out rock and roll night.
Well, this I know, boy and girl alike tuned in on our transistor radios (small battery- operated radios that we could put in our pockets, and hide from snooping parental ears at will) to listen to music that from about day one, at least in my household, was not considered “refined” enough for young, young pious you’ll never get to heaven listening to that devil music and you had better say about eight zillion Hail Marys to get right Catholic, ears. Ya right, Ma, like Patti Page or Bob (not Bing, not the Bing of Brother, Can You Spare A Dime? anyway) Crosby and The Bobcats were supposed to satisfy our jail- break cravings.
In many ways 1956 was the key year, at least to my recollection. And here is why. Elvis may have been burning up the stages, making all the teenage girls down South sweat, making slightly older women sweat and throw undergarments too, and making every guy over about eight years old start growing sideburns before then but that was the year that I actually saw him on television and started be-bopping off his records. Whoa! And the same with Bill Haley and the Comets, even though in the rock pantheon they were old, almost has-been guys, by then. And listened to Chuck Berry too, although it took us a long time down in the all-white Adamsville “projects” to find out he was a “negro” (read: black). And for the purposes of this particular sketch, James Brown, ah, sweet, please, please, please James Brown (and the Flames, of course) with that different black, black as the night, beat that my mother (and others too) would not even let in the house, and maybe not even in our whole white working class neighborhood. Yes, we knew James was black even if we were mystified by Chuck. But remember that transistor radio I mentioned earlier and remember when rock rocked.
Of course all of this remembrance is just so much lead up to a Billie story. You know Billie, Billie from “the projects” hills. William James Bradley to be exact. I told you about him once when I was reviewing a 30th anniversary of rock film concert segment by Bo Diddley. I told the story of how he, and we, learned firsthand down at the base, the nasty face of white racism in this society. No even music, and maybe particularly not even music, was excepted then from that dead of night racial divide, North or South if you really want to know. Yes, that Billie, who also happened to be my best friend, or maybe almost best friend we never did get it straight, in elementary school. Billie was crazy for the music, crazy to impress the tender young girls that he was very aware of, much more aware of than I was and earlier, with his knowledge, his love, and his respect for the music (which is where the innocent Bo Diddley imitation thing just mentioned came from although that story was later than the story I want to tell you now).
But see we were projects kids, and that meant, and meant seriously, no dough kids. No dough to make one look, a little anyway, like one of the hot male teen rock stars such as Elvis or Jerry Lee Lewis. Now this “projects” idea started out okay, I guess, the idea being that returning veterans from World War II, at least some vets like my father, needed a leg up in order to provide for their families. And low-rent public housing was the answer. Even if that answer was four-family unit apartment buildings really fit for one family, one growing three boy family anyway, and no space, no space at all for private, quiet dreams. Of course by 1955, ‘56 during the “golden age” of working- class getting ahead (or at least to many it must seem so now) there was a certain separation between those who had moved on to the great suburban ranch house dream land and those who were seemingly fated to end up as “the projects” fixtures, and who developed along the way a very identifiable projects ethos, a dog-eat-dog ethos if you want to know the truth. It ain’t pretty down at the base, down at the place where the thugs, drifters, grifters, and midnight sifters feed off the rough-edged working poor.
That didn’t stop Billie, or me for that matter, from having our like everybody else dreams, quiet spaced or not. In fact, Billie had during his long time there probably developed the finest honed-edge of “projects” ethos of anyone I knew, but that came later. For now, for the rock minute I want to speak of, Billie was distractedly, no beyond distraction as you will see, trying to make his big break through as a rock performer. See Billie knew, probably knew in his soul, but anyway from some fan magazine that he was forever reading that old Elvis and Jerry Lee (and many of the rockers of the day, black and white alike) were dirt poor just like us. Rough dirt poor too. Farm land, country, rural, shack, white trash, dirt poor which we with our “high style” city ways could barely comprehend.
And there was Elvis, for one, up in big lights. With all the cars, and not junkie old fin-tailed Plymouths or chromed Fords but Cadillacs, and half the girls in the world, and all of them “hot” (although we did not use that word then), or so it seemed. Billie was hooked and hooked hard on that rock star performer fantasy. It consumed his young passions. And for what purpose? If you answered to impress the girls, “the projects” girls right in front of him, hey, now you are starting to get it. And this is what this little story is about.
This was late 1956, maybe early 1957, anyway it was winter, a cold hard winter in the projects, meaning all extra dough was needed for heat, or some serious stuff like that. But see here old Billie and I (as his assistant, or manager, it was never clear which but I was to be riding his star, no question) had no time for cold, for snow or for the no dough to get those things because what was inflaming our minds was that a teen caravan was coming to town in a few weeks. No, not to the projects. Christ no, but downtown at the Adamsville High School auditorium. And what this teen caravan thing was (even though we were not officially teens and would not be so for a while) was a talent show, a big time talent show, like a junior American Bandstand television show, looking for guys and girls who could be the next teen heartthrobs. There were a lot of them in those days, those kinds of backwater talent shows and maybe now too.
This news is where two Billie things came into play so you get an idea of the kind of guy he was back then. First, one night, one dark, snowy night Billie had the bright idea than he and I should go around town and take down all the teen caravan announcement advertisements from the telephone poles and other spots where they were posted. We did, and I need say no more on the matter. Oh, except that a couple of days later, and for a week or so after that, there was a big full-page ad in the local newspaper and ads on the local radio. That’s one Billie big idea gone awry thing and the other, well, let me back up.
When Billie got wind of the contest he went into one of his rants, a don’t mess with Billie or his idea of the moment rant, and usually it was better if you didn’t, and that rant was directed first to no one else but his mother. He needed dough to get an outfit worthy of a “prince of rock” so that he could stand out for the judges. Moreover the song he was going to do was Bill Haley and The Comet’s Rock Around The Clock. I will say he knew that song cold, and the way I could tell was that at school one day he sang it and the girls went crazy. And some of the guys too. Hell, girls started following old Billie around. He was in heaven (honest, I, on the other hand, was indifferent to them, or their charms just then). So the thought that he might win the contest was driving him mad (that same energy would be used later with less purpose but that story is for another day)
Hell, denim jeans, sneakers, and some old hand-down ragamuffin shirt from an older brother ain’t going to get anyone noticed, except maybe to be laughed at. Now, like I said, we were no dough projects boys. And in 1956 that meant serious problems, serious problems even without a damn cold winter. See, like I said before, the projects were for those who were on the down escalator in the golden age of post-World War II affluence. In short, as much as he begged, bothered and bewildered his mother there was no dough, no dough at all for the kind of sparkly suit (or at least jacket) that Billie was desperate for. Hell, he even badgered his dad, old Billie, Senior, and if you badgered old Billie then you had better be ready for some hard knocks and learn how to pick yourself up off the ground, sometimes more than once. Except this time, this time something hit Old Billie, something more than that bottle of booze or six, hard stinky-smelling booze, that he used to keep his courage and television-watching up. He told Mrs. Billie (real name, Iris) that he would spring for the cloth if she would make the suit. Whoopee! We are saved and even Billie, my Billie, had a kind word for his father on this one.
I won’t bore you with the details of Mrs. Billie’s (there you have me calling her that, I always called her Mrs. Bradley, or ma’am) efforts on behalf of Billie’s career. Of course the material for the suit came from the Bargain Center located downtown near the bus terminal. You don’t know the Bargain Center? Sure you do, except it had a different name where you lived maybe and it has names like Wal-Mart and K-Mart, etc. now. Haven’t you been paying attention? Where do you think the material came from? Brooks Brothers? Please. Now this Bargain Center was the early low- rent place where I, and about half the project kids, got our first day of school and Easter outfits (the mandatory twice yearly periods for new outfits in those days). You know the white shirts with odd-colored pin-stripes, a size or two too large, the black chinos with cuffs, christ with cuffs like some hayseed, and other items that nobody wanted some place else and got a second life at the “Bargie.” At least you didn’t have to worry about hand-me-downs because most of the time the stuff didn’t wear that long.
I will say that Mrs. B. did pretty good with what she had to work with and that when the coat was ready it looked good, even if it was finally done only an hour before the show. Christ, Billie almost flipped me out with his ranting that day. And I had seen some bad scenes before. In any case it was ready. Billie went to change clothes upstairs and when he came down everybody, even me, hell, even Old Billie was ooh-ing and ah-ing. Now Billie, to be truthful, didn’t look anything like Bill Haley. I think he actually looked more like Jerry Lee. Kind of thin and wiry, lanky maybe, with brown hair and blue eyes and a pretty good chin and face. I would say now a face that girls would go for; although I am not sure they would all swoon over him, except maybe the giggly ones.
So off we go on the never on time bus, a bus worthy of its own stories, to downtown and the high school auditorium, even my mother and father who thought Billie was the cat’s meow when I brought him around. Billie’s father, Old Billie of the small dreams, took a pass on going. He had a Friday night boxing match that he couldn’t miss and the couch beckoned (an argument could be made that Old Billie was a man before his time in the couch potato department). However all was forgiven him this night for his big idea, and his savior dough. We got to the school auditorium okay and Billie left us for stardom as we got in our rooting section seats. A few minutes later Billie ran up to us to tell us that he was fifth on the list so don’t go anywhere, like out for a cigarette or something.
We sat through the first four acts, a couple of guys doing Elvis stuff (so-so) and a couple of girls (or rather trios of girls) who did some serious be-bop stuff and had great harmonies. Billie, I sensed, was going to have his work cut out for him this night. Finally Billie came out, prompted the four-piece backup band to his song, and he started for the mike. He started out pretty good, in good voice and a couple of nice juke moves, but then about half way through; as he was wiggling and swiggling through his Rock Around The Clock all of a sudden one of the arms of his jacket fell off and landed in the front row. Billie didn’t miss a beat. This guy was a showman.
Then the other jacket arm fell off and also went into the first row. Except this time a couple of swoony girls, girls from our school were tussling, seriously tussling, each other for it. See, they thought it was part of Billie’s act. And what they didn’t know as Billie finished up was that Mrs. Billie (I will be kind to her and not call her what Billie called her) in her rush to finish up didn’t sew the arms onto the body of the jacket securely so they were just held together by some temporary stitches.
Well, needless to say Billie didn’t win (one of those girl trios did, and rightly so, although I didn’t tell Billie that). But next day, and many next days after that, Billie had more girls hanging off his arms than he could shake a stick at. And you know maybe Billie was on to something after all because I started to notice those used-to-been scrawny, spindly-legged, pigeon-toed giggling girls, their new found bumps and curves, and their previously unremarkable winsome girlish charms, especially when Billie would give me his “castoffs.” So maybe his losing was for the best. My for the best.