Here’s the natural follow-up to my prior post. It appeared on-line originally in the November 2010 “First of the Month” and was reprinted in “Perspectives by Incongruity,” DeMott, ed., 2012.
At the conclusion of a dream that included my descending in an elevator with a hooker and leaping a barrier to catch a subway train, I found myself on a park bench taking out a notebook to describe my collection of .45 rpm records to which I have not listened in thirty-five years. When I awoke, it still seemed a good idea. I quote lyrics from memory. I record history from memory too. What are we, if not what we remember?
I acquired most of these records at Treegoob’s, 41st & Lancaster, situated, as its ads proclaimed, “in the heart of West Philadelphia.” Treegoob’s sold used .45s, culled from juke boxes when their plays diminished, for nineteen cents, which was seventy cents below the cost of new ones. The discount was an inducement, but the mile and one-half journey to the store from the safer, whiter shores of our homes, enriched the value of the discs exponentially for my friends and self. Its perceived risks turned our quest heroic and the black circles we retrieved golden rings to win a princess’s hand.
My prime shopping years were between 7th grade (1954-55) and 10th (1957-58). I am uncertain why I stopped, but I suspect the proliferation of Fabian and his ilk, coupled with the rise of Top 40 programming (or even Top 99, which Philly had for awhile), stripped rock of the outlaw edge which had hooked me. Plus, in 1958, my friends and I began turning sixteen, which meant we could drive. And borrowing a father’s car opened excitements to us beyond those available in our rooms with a stack of vinyl.
The records I list below are not necessarily my favorites – and certainly not the era’s Best or Most Significant. But they are those that elbowed to the front of the line once I had awakened.
1. “Annie Had a Baby.” The Midnighters. Federal. Annie couldn’t work “no more. Every time we start to working, she’s got to stop and walk the baby ‘cross the floor.” Uncharacteristically, I paid full price at a South Street shop that Max Garden led me to one day after Hebrew school. But I had to have it. It was not the bad grammar that led to its being banned from air play. The Dictionary of American Slang may not confirm it, but we knew the “working” going on. And the idea that you could sing about it electrified. “Annie” blew the collected works of Patti Page and Eddie Fisher from our minds forever.
2. “By the River.” Wilt Chamberlain. End. “…neath the shady tree.” Just the Dipper, his baby and he. They “kiss, hug, cuddle close…” Absolute pablum, I grant you, but here was Philadelphia’s greatest athlete sticking his toe onto our side of the revolution. Basketball and rock’n’roll – just what little inner city boys were made of.
3. “How Come My Dog Don’t Bark (When You Come ‘Round)?” Prince Patridge. Crest. “He bites the mailman, and he sees him every day, but when you come ‘round, he rolls over to play.” We liked the humor, the implications – and dogs. Plus what kind of name was “Prince” or, for that mater, “Patridge”? Where did he come from and where did he go? If he’d had a past or future, it was unknown to us. Greatness was forever existentially stamped transitory.
4. “Nite Owl.” Tony Allen. Specialty. Here he came, “walking through the front door,” and “Hoo, hoo, hoo” backed up The Champs, adding ornithological depth to the orchestration – or Dada-esq juxtaposition, depending on your point of view. But we all aspired to be what Allen claimed for himself. Out on the dark streets, boldly alone, unfettered by municipal curfew laws imposed to control our disappointingly tame delinquencies.
5. “Pledging My Love.” Johnny Ace. Duke. “Forever, my darling, my love will be true.” That silky, seductive voice. The promise of that eternally heated heart – set beside the chilling reality of Ace’s fate at the hands of Russian roulette. The hammer and the spinning chamber. The fickle, random universe at play. “What I want to know,” Georgie Woods, our favorite disc jockey inquired, “is did he win or lose?”
6. “Sixty Minute Man.” The Dominoes. Federal. “…fifteen minutes of teasing and fifteen minutes of squeezing and fifteen minutes of blowing my top.” Released before my time, but on a cross-country trip in 1963, Davey Peters and I stopped in a town in South Dakota because he wanted a pair of black jeans which, as I recall, he had seen James Dean wear, but which no place in Philly stocked; and in a five-and-ten I found a stash that contained this ribald classic. Maybe the last .45 I ever purchased. In the preceding few months I had acquired “My Favorite Things” and “Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan” and was on my way to other things.
7. “Smokey Joe’s Café.” The Robins. Atco. “From behind the counter, I saw a man. Chef’s hat on his head and knife in his hand.” Early Leiber & Stoller (and wasn’t that really The Coasters, pseudonym-ed up for obscure contractual reasons?) An entire saga in under three minutes: a hint of sex; a threat of danger (we knew they had to be related); a bit of humor – served up over a plate of beans. Masterful.
8. “Speedo.” The Cadillacs. Josie. “Bum-bum-bum-bum-bop-bop- doodly…” His real name not “Joe” or “Moe” but “MISTER (emp. supp.) Earl,” and how cool was that? We knew no one named “Mister Bob” or “Mister Max.” Even our fathers weren’t “Mister Herb” or “Mister Sam.” When Stanley Kessler and I compared lists of Best Songs Ever at Camp Tacoma in 1957, I went heavy for super-charged do-wop like this and “Come Go With Me” and “Strange Love.” He out-sophisticated me with ballads: “Earth Angel,” “To the Aisle,” “Soldier Boy.” But it was to be expected. Stanley, the veteran of many more make-out parties, even claimed to have scored bare tit from Cookie Yosowitz (not her real name).
9. “W-P-L-J.” The 4 Deuces. Music City. “You shake it up fine. Get a good-good wine.” A tribute to the power of drink. More that the future promised but the present denied. And on the flip side (I kid you not), “Here Lies My Love” by Mr. Undertaker. Huh? What was that about? Was the universe trying to warn us about where such dissolution led? As if we didn’t have enough inhibitions snarling our progression.
10. “Zindy Lou.” The Chimes. Specialty. “…a girl that come from the hills and, oh hot dog (something about “thrills” or “chills” or even “I think that she will”). One of those girls we knew were out there and hoped to meet but wondered if we ever would. It didn’t help that her name, like Chuck Berry’s “Maybelline” or The Valentines’ “Lily Maybelle,” was one that had never been called in any of our home rooms. Nor that the number became a dance contest song in the early days of “ Bandstand,” co-mingling with another land of exotically named, beyond-our-reach damsels: Justine and Arlene and Big and Little Ro.
Honorable Mention. “Jam Up.” Tommy Ridgely. Atlantic. Georgie Woods opened each show on WHAT with it. When he switched to WDAS (or was it vice-versa), he didn’t, and when Max Garden called to ask why, he learned the station’s library lacked a copy. So Max borrowed my copy and brought it to Woods in order that tradition be preserved.
At least, I think that happened. Max is dead, so I can’t ask him. And Davey’s dead, so I can’t confirm that part about James Dean – or if it was South, not North Dakota. And Stanley’s dead, so I don’t know if he is sticking to his story about Cookie Yosowitz. My dream had summoned me to reflect upon my friends, cup our history in my hands, and craft it for my purposes. All pasts lie forgotten in closets and on shelves, crumbling to pieces, some of which may be salvaged and refashioned to construct a present and, hopefully, influence a future.