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My Rock and Roll Journey to Georgia by John Scriven

Part Two - The Awakening

It’s hard to believe that Bill Haley & His Comets incited youth riots and vandalism in cinemas all across Britain in the mid-fifties, but that’s exactly what they did. They wore tartan, lounge-lizard tuxedos and bow ties, and chubby Bill sported a heavily lacquered kiss-curl. They even had an accordion player in the band! Are you kidding me?

Bill Haley and His Comets

Seems improbable, but this band was a major fuel source for the ignition of the rock revolution that swept Britain. At the time, there was a youth cult in the country led by so-called Teddy Boys. They were so named because their chosen fashions were reminiscent of the Edwardian era. A popular diminutive for Edward was Teddy and that got shortened to Ted, so they also became known as Teds.

Teddy Boys in England in the 50’s

Bill Haley’s biggest hit, Rock Around The Clock, was featured in a minor movie called The Blackboard Jungle.

Teds who saw this movie elevated it to cult status and developed a new hobby – dancing in the aisles and slashing cinema seats with switchblades. All of this was unnerving for the British establishment, who labeled the youth movement a communist-inspired plot to undermine British society. At 13, I was part of a generation that salivated at the thought of British society being undermined.

Although I was too young to be a Ted, I bought a bunch of Haley’s records. I soon lost interest in Haley’s rockabilly band when I heard a bluesy record called Mystery Train. The singer was a Memphis truck driver named Elvis Presley.

I couldn’t believe what I was hearing and went right out and bought every Elvis record I could find. He was the coolest thing I’d ever heard, and I was hooked on real rock and roll. Although I struggled with shyness, I made a valiant effort to become a rock and roll rebel. I stopped wearing a school uniform and bought a trendy sport coat and a pair of tight trousers, known as “drainpipes”, an outfit I wore throughout my third year in Grammar School (the American equivalent of High School). I started to grow my hair and practiced my Elvis lip twitch in front of the mirror.

Presley led me to other rockers who were spearheading an exciting music revolution across the pond in America. As a piano player, one of my favorites was Jerry Lee Lewis.

See if you can imagine all of this: You’re a 13 year old kid living in a country still ruled by stick-up-the-ass upper classes with fussy, outdated rules about protocol and behavior. You’re in a grammar school whose principal would have been deemed old-fashioned when Victoria was on the throne; a school where dictatorial teachers were allowed to bend you over a desk in front of the whole class and whack your backside with a size 13 tennis shoe just for mispronouncing a Spanish verb. All in all you felt like you were just another brick in the wall (more of that later).

Above all, you’re bored out of your mind most of the time and struggling to find a true musical identity. You’ve been forced into piano lessons by well-meaning parents and your piano teacher is so old he wouldn’t be out of place in a Dickens novel. You’re being forced to learn classical music, which you loathe. Then, suddenly, against that background of expression-repression, you stumble across this:

Holy crap! Roll over Beethoven and please take Tchaikovsky, Brahms and those other classical bores with you. And don’t forget my musty old piano teacher! As if that wasn’t enough, I then discovered Little Richard:

For me, Little Richard took rock to a whole new level. He was the real deal. He played the piano standing up! I didn’t know it at the time, but in that raspy, blues-soaked voice, I was hearing the influence of the kind of southern gospel church music that molded artists like Ray Charles, Sam Cooke and Tina Turner. And how prophetic was it that Richard Wayne Penniman came from Macon, Georgia?

The discovery of rock music in the 50’s may not have changed my life, but it certainly changed my attitudes toward it. Suddenly, I had something that symbolized my feelings of rebellion against the British class system that tried to pin you for life into whichever socio-economic group you accidentally entered at birth. Screw that.

Rock, and the whole cultural ethos that came with it, showed my generation that we didn’t have to be pinned down by anything. Especially not the values of a generation we regarded as inhibited to the point of paralysis. Later, I adopted a greater understanding and respect for my parent’s generation, but in 1956 it hovered around the zero mark.

I didn’t know it at the time, but my rock and roll journey had begun for real. It continued as I discovered other American artists such as Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley, Fats Domino, Buddy Holly, and the incredible Ray Charles. I also continued to discover Elvis and that amazing Sun Records catalog created by the genius of producer Sam Phillips. I breathed in this new music form as if it was a variation of oxygen and essential to my survival. In a way, it was.

Listening to these artists led me to discover the blues and jazz musicians that I admire to this day. And thank God for that, because at the end of the 50’s the American rock scene was about to disintegrate due to the temporary demise of the pioneers who created it. That demise brought new kinds of music into my life that I love: Blues, Jazz and Boogie-Woogie. More of that in the next posting.

For now, I leave you with a tribute that is, surely, one of the greatest jam sessions of all time. It features many of the artists I’ve mentioned in this post and, briefly, includes one of my current piano playing heroes, Chuck Leavell. Enjoy.

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