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Tracing the Trailblazers 

Author Nick Tosches celebrates rock's pre-Elvis pioneers.

Think rock and roll began with the arrival of Elvis Presley? Well, think again. As Nick Tosches reveals in this reissue of Unsung Heroes of Rock 'n' Roll (complete with a new preface), Presley simply popularized a musical form that was in existence as early as 1942. In the years since its original publication in 1984, Heroes, with its 28 profiles of the most influential artists that composed rock's first generation, has attained a cult-like status among rock-and-roll history buffs, though Tosches is quick to point out, little financial recompense ($387, in his estimation).

One never doubts Tosches's admiration for those practitioners of what he feels was rock and roll in its most genuine form. Just don't expect any overt displays of reverence in these pages. This is, after all, a man who offers the following commentary on the death of R&B great Johnny Ace (from a self-inflicted gunshot wound): "Surely there must have been a less ruinous way to deal with the problem of last-minute Christmas shopping." Still, there's an unmistakable honesty to Tosches's rude, wise-ass prose. As far as he's concerned, real rock music died a long time ago, and he makes no secret of his disdain for what later came to pass as rock and roll. "What are the Eurythmics but the Steve and Eydie of our own dismal descent into the blandness of middle age?" he remonstrates. "Is there any difference between Bruce Springsteen's 'Born in the U.S.A.' and Chrysler's 'The Pride Is Back/Born in America' advertising campaign?"

Maybe, maybe not; but even in rock's infancy its pioneers were inspired not so much by any creative spirit as by a simple desire to make money. Recording for small independent labels, they made music during a time when, in Tosches's words, "tradition was still a force" and that comparatively speaking, "these characters were far more shocking than the most diligently outrageous new rock acts of today." Though most of the artists covered here never became household names, a few big-league performers are included for the work they did prior to achieving mainstream success. Nat King Cole is one of them--in the years before he established himself as a crooner of romantic ballads, Tosches writes that "he did not merely electrify the blues, he transformed them."

One of the more colorful characters profiled here is blues shouter Wynonie Harris (who had a hit on the R&B charts with "Good Rockin' Tonight" in 1948, a full six years before Presley recorded the song as his second single). If Harris's name doesn't ring a bell, his influence was keenly felt in the hip-swiveling, lip-curling stage theatrics of Presley, who borrowed those moves from Harris after watching him perform in Memphis in the early 1950s. Harris, who once lived high on the hog with his earnings, eventually fell on hard times. Oblivion soon followed. It's a theme common to most of these performers. Unsung they may have been, but they clearly paved the way for those who followed in their footsteps.

Take Texas-born Amos Milburn, who told the author that when it came to the consistent subject matter of his musical repertoire, "I practiced what I preached." And how! The onetime heavy drinker who recorded such titles as "Let Me Go Home Whiskey," "Vicious Vicious Vodka," and "One Scotch, One Bourbon, One Beer" was, in the years between 1946 and 1957, cutting--in Tosches's words--"some of the toughest records in the history of rock and roll, records built upon raw electric guitar, drunken tenor sax, and Milburn's own piano and voice."

It wasn't only men who were blazing these new musical paths, either. There were women, it turns out, who could rock with the best of them--Wanda Jackson for one. The dark-haired white girl from Oklahoma with the movie-star looks was, in Tosches's typically unrefined terminology, "simply and without contest, the greatest menstruating rock-and-roll singer whom the world has ever known." She started off singing country songs, but by 1956, writes Tosches, the eighteen-year-old "began to sing the way the devil had intended her to sing." Touring with the likes of Presley and Jerry Lee Lewis, she sang songs on the lascivious side (1958's "Fujiyama Mama" being her best known). "Her voice," writes Tosches, "a wild fluttering thing of sexy subtleties and sudden harshness, feral feline purrings and raving banshee shriekings, was a vulgar wonder to hear."

One of the funniest segments of the book is Tosches's 1973 interview with Screamin' Jay Hawkins, whose 1956 single "I Put a Spell on You" became a hit in spite of being banned by most radio stations. As Tosches describes it, "Screamin' Jay Hawkins's vocal hallucinations were perceived as being invocatory of all manner of horrible things, from anal rape to cannibalism." In the course of his strange career, Hawkins once had a hit single in Japan with 1968's "Constipation Blues" ("I guess the pains of not bein' able to get it out were understood by the Japanese," he stated to Tosches), and though his stage shtick included rising from a coffin and using skulls and snakes as props, Hawkins asks the author in all seriousness, "Why can't people just take me as a regular singer without makin' a bogeyman out of me?"

Some of the artists seem to be featured here for the sole purpose of providing a few laughs for the reader. Tosches treats the going-nowhere career of Jimmy Logsdon, the Hank Williams wannabe who made "lurid rockabilly boogie tunes" but never scored a hit, as a source of amusement. Ditto Louis Prima, who sang his impossibly kitschy creations in "an English heavily interlaced with the Neapolitan slang of his greaseball roots." Prima, writes Tosches, "presaged the rock and roll of the ridiculous. He perceived and embraced in all its tutti-frutti glory, the spirit of post-literate, made-for-television America." (Work that included 1952's "The Bigger the Figure," described here as "a salacious homage to fat broads based on the 'Largo al Factotum' aria from Rossini's Barber of Seville.")

For those who can't resist hunting down these sometimes weird, sometimes wonderful treasures, the book includes a handy listing of CD reissues featuring all of the artists in question.

Unsung Heroes of Rock 'n' Roll, by Nick Tosches, Da Capo Press, $14.95.

More by Tierney Smith

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