THE PEOPLE of ROCK and ROLL


These quick notes describe some of the people behind the scenes, who made RockNRoll music.
I'm looking for strong performers, consistent across the years. Initially they'll be the more known people because, well, most are unknown.

And at the end of the page I put disk jockeys in a special category.

CALVIN CARTER
An organizer, the spark behind "It's In His Kiss" and other productions.

CHRIS CLARK
Her careers ranged from secretary to movie producer (Lady Sings the Blues).
Out front for a few years as a blues singer of medium popularity, some fans had their eyes opened when she first appeared on TV - the blues singer stereotype did not include being six feet tall with platinum-blond hair. :-)

BARRY GORDY
He began as a song writer for stars like Jackie Wilson.
Founded Motown to control the music for more financial benefit to writer and performer, with a vision of the type of production needed and the content (tell a story).
Motown was dedicated to quality, intending that each singles release was capable of going to number one in ratings. They did innovative things such as hiring a charm school teacher and a choreographer to make their shows a visual performance as well as the essential of an audio performance.
However, Bary Gordy made mistakes along the way - especially in who he hired and in allowing a bureaucracy to develop. So Motown lost the creative productive edge they had when people gravitated to their converted house just to "be where the music was being made" in an atmosphere of friendly competition.
I recommend the TV show Motown 40th Anniversary to learn of the good and bad of Motown.

ELECTRIC BASS LADY
Carol Kaye popularized what became known as the "bass guitar", a key part of most RnR performances.
One of LA's most desired studio musicians, she taught playing of the bass guitar (originally called the "electric bass").
She describes the seriousness of the LA studio business - workmanlike with none of the partying and drug use she claims existed in Detroit.
Look for a book by her (rumoured to be imminent as of a few years ago - nothing on her web site in mid-September 2004).

CAROL KING
IMO not a great performer, but as a writer in the famous team of Goffin and King was outstanding - responsible for many RnR hits.
An unusual case was The Locomotion. Its performer, Little Eva, was a 14 year old baby sitter for Gerry Goffin and Carole King. Eva was in the right place at the right time, with the right people! (Unfortunately she did not have any more hits, but did produce a number of songs - I like her version of Stand By Me (punchier than Ben E King's which I also like.)

GLADYS KNIGHT
A "southern soul" lady who made it on her own, joined Motown for even greater success, and went back out on her own.
She was a good businesswoman to advance the career of herself and backup singers ("The Pips", her brothers and cousins).
Still performing in 2000.
One of her songs is interesting - it has similar theme, styling, and even musical bits to the well-known I Am Woman by Helen Reddy. (Perhaps a small amount of the intro flavour in Midnight Train to Georgia, but not the high tone bit.)

BRENDA LEE
Notable for a very young start and several musical several styles. (Crossing over from Louisiana Creole to teen tear-jerker to country - her last of many pop chart hits being the hard-driving semi-country "Comin' On Strong". At the age of 21 she moved back toward country, and was still out there performing her RnR work in her 60s.)

THE MARVELLETES
Let's recognize one of Motown's early successes, whose hits included Please Mr. Postman. (Can someone please remind me who produced it? Not Sylvia Moie.)
Dressed up and polished, they showed the way for other artists (many needing the choreography and charm teachers Motown hired to provide a visual show not just singing).

SYLVIA MOIE [spelling?]
One of several under-recognized producers/writers from Motown's early days, she ensured Stevie Wonder's career after several unsuccessful attempts in Motown to produce a hit on him.

MARTHA REEVES
Notable as an entrepreneur, her backup singers - the Vandellas - were relatives hired by her not Motown.
Today she helps high school bands, such as Victoria High's R&B band who do much Motown.

SMOKEY ROBINSON
A performer himself, with high school friends and sweetheart in The Miracles group, Smokey was the producer/writer behind the scenes for many Motown hits - including Mary Well's calypso-based performances such as You Beat Me to the Punch and My Guy (and the shaggy dog story Two Lovers), as well as a favorite of mine: My Girl, by the Temptations. A steady talent.

JACK SCOTT
A more pleasant sounding rockabilly artist.
For example, listen to "Oh Little One".


PHIL SPECTOR
The "evil genius" of Phillies Records, a nasty person whose genius was understanding what was needed to make a hit and working very hard to do so. (The same approach that Barry Gordy ensured Motown had but he was not nasty - just naiive.)
Spector's output had variety that most people don't recognize - from The Paris Sisters through Corina Corina to the ultimate hard-driving RnR piece "Da Do Ron Ron". He produced many of the Righteous Brothers' hits.
Known for long recording days to polish the sound for success.
Hated by many for his nastiness and dishonesty, he was successfully sued by artists such as Darlene Love.

BABS TINO
OK, I threw that in from a far field. :-) (Thanks to Red Robinson for the info from his radio show.)
She worked making demo records for song writers - talk about niche work!
Despite a good voice, she had only one hit herself.
(Check spelling of her last name.)

THE FUNK BROTHERS
Motown's musicians - talent with strategy. (They tried to give each performer/group a signature sound - for example listen for the snare drum every fourth beat at the bottom in Supreme's hits.)

DON KIRSHNER and AL NEVINS
They formed the publishing company Aldon Music, housed in a building built at 1650 Broadway in New York City. That building, one at 1697 Broadway, and the better known Brill Building nearby housed many music development enterprises that fostered writing lyrics and music, recording them, and taking care of business. The presence of Big Band and African American Swing writers and musicians there may have helped and influenced Rock and Roll productions by Bacharach and David, Leiber and Stroller, Sedaka and Greenfield, Goffin and King, and other names well known in Rock and Roll.

DISK JOCKEYS
Who often presented the music to you, sometimes playing more fundamental roles in developing or promoting it.

Red Robinson
(respected Vancouver BC disk jockey - site has significant history information). He is on CISL 650 on Sunday from noon to 4 pm. His CD "Sunrise: The Dawn of Rock and Roll", has interviews with key artists from the beginnings of RnR - complete with a booklet of photos, available at Neptoon Records in Vancouver BC.

Pat O'Day
Respected Seattle disk jockey and national concert promoter. Very good business and programming sense, but put up with too much bad personal behaviour from artists. Look for his recent book, and a later interview in the Northwest magazine section of the Seattle Times.

Wolfman Jack
Read his book to see how clever he was, how whacko he behaved, and how debauched some of the music industry people were. Stories include early days "down south" somewhere (living integrated without even thinking about it until.....), and his involvement with the powerhouse radio stations in Mexico (coping with misbehaviour of the government there).

(Each of Pat O'Day's and Wolfman Jack's books contain an educational example of a performer or group who just got the job done well and efficiently.)

All were good at promotion, including concerts not just radio stations. I list them in increasing order of the extreme of promotion and their fame - O'Day after Robinson because of his larger concert business - all have mellowed with age, but perhaps the list is in decreasing order of classiness.


2004 is being considered the 50th anniversary of Rock and Roll, considering when Rock Around the Clock was released, Elvis Presley was emerging from Rockabillly, and the doo-wop classic In the Still of the Night was written.

Some of us "oldies" think RnR began to decline when the Beattles emerged in the mid-60s (great writers, mediocre performers, dumb personal beliefs). Certainly one should use an adjective in front when describing the music genre after the first decade.
Like most music RnR is a blend of styles - why (horrors!) there's even country in its roots and performances - with many artists influenced by earlier performers and styles. :-)
(Let's recognize the usefulness and limits of categories, unlike the collectivist approach that defines persons by the superficial group they fall into. See Chris Clark at the beginning of this page for an example of practical pitfalls.)


A sidelight of the RnR era is that much of the music was performed by individuals whose skin was black, which probably did not help acceptance of the music by many people. While there was discrimination there were many opportunities across most of the country including LA where high schools were not segregated.
Yes, there were limits. Motown deliberately hired white-skinned sales people to get acceptance. Finally they decided that was no longer needed. In the 40th Anniversary of Motown TV show, a story is told of one Southern U.S. distributor's first encounter with a black-skilled sales person. He called Motown Records' chief of sales, who had white skin, saying something to the effect of "Your new salesman, well, ....he's black." The response was "How much business did you get from Motown last year?". The sales person later reported that the door from the distributor's office to the reception area flew open and the distributor greeted him enthusiastically. Yes, money does talk - for good if the values of the person who has it are good (and absent mob force, as still common in the South then in the form of government directly and through police protection of vigilantes like the Klu Klux Klan, wealth will be acquired by those with good values because people respond well to them).
Another aspect is the many "cover" records, by white-skinned performers of productions originated by black-skinned performers. According to renowned disc jockey Red Robinson, that actually helped black-skinned performers, writers, and record companies - not only through song royalties of course, but it introduced many people to the music. Rebutting theories of "stealing" songs, Red appropriately says "I was there". (And I note he was quite familiar with such productions in their original form.)

Another funny story: A member of the group fronted by Gary "US" Bonds says that the Klu Klux Klan hired them for a show, but stopped the show when he came on stage with his colleagues - he has black skin.


© Keith Sketchley
2012.04.29

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