This originally appeared, entitled “The Dawn of Rock ‘n’ Roll,” on-line in THE BROAD STREET REVIEW of Sept. 1, 2009. Because of the REVIEW’s proscription against using pseudonyms and my refusal to abide by it, I did not identify my fellow seekers by name. But they were Max Garden, Davey Peters, Mickey Kipper, and, maybe, Fletcher Sparrow.
I bought my first record when I was twelve: Little Walter’s “My Babe.” The film Cadillac Records reveals him as scotch-soaked, pistol-packing, tragedy-fated. But if I thought of him at all, it was as a tiny guy with the same name as my cousin. No cult of personality compelled the release of my eighty-nine cents. It was entirely the edgy, haunted voice, the scratchy, lilting beat – the sound alone stirring my placid blood. I had no “babe.” I had not transgressed my way into “cheating” – let alone any “midnight creeping” – but I divined a summons onto tempting ground.
Rock’n’roll/rhythm and blues began slipping into my life and those of my friends, drip-by-drip, during seventh grade (1954-55). Songs were popping onto our car radios, like “Sh-Boom” (The Crewcuts neutered version, not The Chords original) or “Ling-Ting-Tong,” causing our fathers to push the buttons to re-establish the priorities of Kitty Kallen and Eddie Fisher. From the play list of “Bob and Sherry,” who tutored us in the rudiments of box step and jitterbug and mambo in the lower floor of Beth Zion synagogue, we could hear, besides “Hey There” and “The Naughty Lady of Shady Lane,” “Shake, Rattle and Roll” (Bill Haley, not Big Joe Turner) and “Earth Angel” (Gloria Mann, not The Penguins). I don’t recall who tipped me to WHAT and WDAS and the raw authenticity at the far end of the radio’s dial, but soon I was fighting my father for the car’s buttons, and in my room all I listened to was Kay Williams and Mitch Thomas and, best of all, Jocko (“EEE-tiddleee-yock, this is the Jock”) Henderson and Georgie Woods, “The Man With the Goods,” ringing his cow bell and declaring everything to be “cool, calm and copacetic.” For my bar mitzvah, I requested my own .45 player, handsome plastic, pink and black.
In a recent Wired, J.J. Abrams lamented the loss of the need to leave one’s home in order to buy music – of having to “brave the weather, bump into strangers… (and) earn” it. Well, my friends and I earned the records stacked upon the spindles of our machines.
Treegoob’s, our primary source of supply, was at 41st and Lancaster, which was, in Georgie Woods’s terms, “in the heart of West Philadelphia.” Joseph Conrad could not have put it better. For in those days, Market Street drew a racial divide through our portion of West Philly, whites to the south, blacks to the north; and, from my house, once you crossed the shadow of the el, Treegoob’s still lay one scary mile away.
But every few months, on a Saturday morning, two or three of us made the journey. We did not ride bikes; bikes too strongly tempted brigands. We did not ask our parents for rides. (For out purposes, we probably would have preferred encountering brigands to begging rides from parents.) Across Market Street stretched a vacant block, where weeds sprouted and cabbage moths flitted among the husk of an abandoned Chevrolet. Beyond it lay home-based churches, whose Sunday sermon titles were misspelled in chalk on slate, and storefront emporiums offering sinks and toilets from their pavement or displaying fish we had not heard of from seas we would never troll.
We kept our gaze straight ahead. We challenged no stranger’s stare – and most certainly did not “bump” any of them. In truth, interracial violence, though present, was not extreme in our corner of the world. One boy I knew had been socked in the jaw when he refused to hand over an orange sweater. My brother had been forced to surrender his Halloween candy to a trio of older girls. And once word had reached Lea School that the Black Bottoms, a gang from Sulzberger Jr. High, intended to wreak havoc upon us for some outrage no one could identify. Seventh and eighth graders slid pen knives into their lunch boxes and pool cue butts down their pants legs; older male relations patrolled the perimeter. No auslanders appeared, but, following that threat, the term shvartzes had come into common usage among my peers. Still, in all our treks, over two or three years, the worst inflicted upon us were some muttered oaths and thrown stones.
Treegoob’s primarily sold appliances. But even its EZ Credit terms did not lure us toward console TVs and toaster ovens. We bee-lined for the record department. Overhead, from Riverside and Blue Note covers, Horace Silver and Art Blakey and Thelonious Monk appraised us with indifference. But they were gods in a world more than our allowances kept us from entering. Our goal was the three trays stacked with hundreds of more accessible .45s, culled from juke boxes because their plays had slackened and offered for nineteen cents apiece – the best price in the known world. We fell upon them like harpies at Phineas’s table, fingering rapidly, front to back, in pursuit of the wildly admired, the thoroughly desirable, the trophies which would rain envy upon us. Those searches yielded me “Annie Had a Baby” and “Speedo,” “Smokey Joe’s Café” and “Zindy Lou,” “How Come My Dog Don’t Bark” and “WPLJ,” “I Hear You Knocking’” and “Pledging My Love.”
It was not everything I wanted, but it was a lot.
We were aware that this exercise of our discretionary spending placed us on one side of a cultural divide. We recognized that our position was not championed by any authoritative adult. We understood that ours was a tolerated taste we were expected to outgrow. But each week we checked the Top Ten list at our neighborhood record store and tuned in radio’s Make Believe Ballroom and TV’s Your Hit Parade seeking our favorites vindication. We buzzed with excitement when “Maybelline” surfaced in the line-up locally. But it crept no higher than number nine.
Then, in July 1955, “Rock Around the Clock” became the best-selling song in America. To appreciate the magnitude of this achievement, recognize that, for the previous nine weeks, the bearer of the crown had been “Cherry Pink and Apple Blossom White” – and “The Ballad of Davy Crockett” had reigned the five before that. (Recognize too that it would be another seven months before a record with origins in the black market, “The Great Pretender,” captured the title.)
We knew that we were on the winning side of a revolution. In fact, our suspicions hardened that all our revolutions – even those we had not identified – even those where sides had not been dawn – were ones that we would win.