When they’re discussed at all, the early 1960s are usually derided as rock ‘n’ roll’s Dark Ages, the years when the hot guitar licks and sexualized strains of boogie and backbeat were subdued by an army of brylcreemed teen idols steering pop music safely back to Middle America.
It’s an unfair characterization. First, the Fabians and Frankie Avalons aside, there actually were a number of fascinating teen pop and R&B; productions particular to the time.
Second, and far more significantly, there is truth to the prevailing idea that rock ‘n’ roll in its original form fell out of commercial favor during the early ‘60s. But the spirit of adolescent musical fervor would remain very much alive in that time. The spirit had just reconfigured itself, stealing into the high school gyms, dancehalls and beer parties of the American landscape.
The Southern rockabilly front men, if you could find them in 1961, might be singing country in hinterland juke joints. Elvis was onscreen warbling “Blue Hawaii,” Little Richard had gone gospel and the Beatles were still pups. But from Tacoma, Washington and San Antonio to Minneapolis and Portland, Maine, every American burg had its young proponents of rock ‘n’ roll in the early ‘60s, its homegrown version of the Fireballs or the Champs. They were the combos turning out energetic, boozy covers like “Greenback Dollar,” “Tequila,” “Let the Good Times Roll,” and maybe a wild original or two. They took up the mantle of rock ‘n’ roll where the first generation had left off, taking their cues from a different lineage of musicians: the Isley Brothers, Link Wray and Wraymen, Bo Diddley, the Coasters, the Fendermen.
With saxophones, twangy guitars, matching suits, and a repertoire of party-friendly R&B; vocals and raunchy instrumentals, groups like the Ventures (“Walk, Don’t Run”), the Rivieras (“California Sun”) and the Johnny & the Hurricanes (“Red River Rock”) sprang from the demographic that would sustain rock ‘n’ roll for decades to come: the towns and suburbs of middle class America. It wasn’t as flamboyant perhaps as the first generation, but great rock ‘n’ roll, it turns out, was not in a state of hibernation in the early ‘60s. Not at all. It had just flown to the provinces.
Two or three years later, some groups might update their repertoires with the staccato guitar runs of surf music, that most stylized form of early ‘60s instrumental rock ‘n’ roll. Another year or two would pass and other groups might ditch the saxophones and buzz cuts altogether and, with any luck, transition successfully into the British Invasion. Some, however, seem to have always existed in a twilight zone of their own singular making. Like this week’s selections.
1. The Lincoln Trio, Shake Down (Fascination)
Fascination was a small independent label founded in the late ‘50s by legendary Detroit record impresario Armen Boladian. With only one other 45 (the similarly obscure and exotic “Garden of Eden,” also on Fascination Records) to their name, the whys and hows of the Lincoln Trio, however, remain elusive. The names in “Shake Down”’s writing credits can be spotted on several other Fascination releases, suggesting that Claude Howard, Jacob Davidson and Isidore Jacobs were Detroit studio songwriters and musicians that Boladian regularly hired.
They may been professional musicians. Or not. The guitar is muffled, the bass nearly non-existent: Boladian’s production technique is either sloppy or bracingly spontaneous, depending on the frame of mind. There’s a wonderfully dark and raw energy to 1960’s “Shake Down,” though. The kind of energy that says danger and drama. The kind of energy that’s impossible to recreate if you’ve had more than ten minutes to practice beforehand.
Armen Boladian would go on to form one of the great independent soul labels of the ‘70s, Westbound Records, home to the Parliament/Funkadelic aggregation, the Ohio Players and the Detroit Emeralds among other notables.
Boladian, strangely enough, has been in sampling and copyright law news in recent years.
2. The Crescents (Featuring Chiyo), Pink Dominos (Era)
The Crescents were formed in Los Angeles in the early ‘60s by Tom Bresh (guitar), Tom Mitchell (bass), Ray Reed (saxophone) and the mysterious Chiyo (guitar).
Bill Eucker (the writer credited for “Pink Dominos”) was a guitar instructor at Ernie Ball’s store and studio in Thousand Oaks, California. It seems likely that it was there that Eucker handed off “Pink Dominos” to the Crescents’ guitarist Thom Bresh, then a young pupil at Ball’s studio.
Idle speculation aside, the group’s second 45 was “Devil’s Surf” and, with a title like that, you pretty much knew what you were getting: a minor-key title laden with echo, crashing drums and exotic surf guitar riffs. On the other hand, no listener would ever have any idea what “Pink Dominos” were, which in turn meant that Chiyo and company could do pretty much whatever they wanted with it. And so they did, turning their studio time into a noisy, pounding workout that was popular enough with the part of America that did not suffer from migraines to make it a small hit in 1963.
The Crescents were like other early ‘60s instrumental bands during California surf music’s glory years, issuing a few obscure 45s before migrating on to other things with the advent of the British Invasion. The Crescents were categorically unlike any other such groups, however, in one way: Chiyo was female. This would make her one of the very few, if not the only, female guitarists in all of surf music, as far as I know.
The Crescent’s guitarist Thom Bresh is the son of legendary country singer-songwriter and guitar picker Merle Travis. Bresh, himself a renowned guitarist, has enjoyed a wildly varied career in television,
film and country music since a young age. He remains active in the industry today.
3. Ronny Kae, Swinging Drums (Band Box)
Session drummer Ronny Kae’s professional career began in his native New York City, but he’s more likely to be remembered – at least in his adopted state of Colorado – as the founder of one of Denver’s venerable music shops, Drum City (now Drum City Guitarland).
Before Drum City’s beginnings in 1965, though, before the Louisiana Purchase and before, even, the signing of the Magna Carta. It was somewhere around last Ice Age, I believe, back with the wooly mammoths and glaciers and everything when Ronny Kae would be cutting a few feral records of his own. Sandy Nelson, Earl Palmer, Hal Blaine: there was precedent for session drummers who made successful pop instrumentals in the early ‘60s, but nothing could have prepared audiences for the hairy kinetic racket that is 1962’s “Swinging Drums.”
“Pink Dominos” may be primitive, but “Swinging Drums” is positively prehistoric. If the instrumentation of “Shake Down” is unorthodox, then “Swinging Drums” is avant-garde. Minimalist art or caveman curiosity? As with all the best early rock ‘n’ roll recordings, “Swinging Drums” must be considered both ways.
Band Box was a tiny Denver record label. Shortly after “Swinging Drums,” Kae would follow up with another lowbrow milestone, “Drums Fell Off a Cliff,” also on Band Box.
After a successful, decades-long run in the retail musical instrument business, Ronny Kae passed on in 1993. His sons Tim and Jason now run Drum City Guitarland.