Forty years ago, almost to the day, this was published in Record Mirror
Johnny Cash, Conway Twitty, Charlie Rich and Ronnie Hawkins: Arkansas Rock Pile
Record Mirror, 28 June 1969
ROCK AND roll was the victory of regional locality over the world, of precise beliefs over general theory, of particular feelings over universal philosophies.
Rock and roll was a boy from nowhere, inspired by music, dazzled by lights, elated by applause, intoxicated by fame. Corrupted by wealth? If he was lucky. Rock and roll was an audience escaping into a frenzy of noisy physical excitement.
Rock and roll was everything now and nothing later.
Rock and roll was freedom.
Rock and roll was four singers from Arkansas with nothing to lose, who won.
Rock and roll is four singers from Liverpool, who won and keep winning.
If Elvis Presley's 'That's All Right' is the most important record since the war, the Beatles' 'Love Me Do' and Bob Dylan's 'Don't Think Twice, It's All Right' are next on the list. All three influenced in some way a large proportion of the records made since their release, and permanently changed our responses to the records made before them.
But if Elvis Presley's record is rock and roll, the music of Bob Dylan and the Beatles needs a different name. To put them together in the same bag ignores the differences between them: for today the music which gets called rock and roll is many of the thing rock and roll used to deny.
The rock and roll of the Byrds, the Who, Simon and Garfunkel embraces time, demands mental concentration, expounds a philosophy of life. Which is interesting â€“ isn't it? â€“ but somehow seems to need a different name. The new rock and roll has become part of a middle class culture, a job which requires phenomenally expensive equipment even from its novices, a career for college students or disenchanted painters who shrewdly invest their earnings in preparation for an early retirement or the luxury of part-time work while still in their twenties.
But while the Beatles, without a style to call their own, leap about from one sound to another and meanwhile make disastrous mistakes in business which they can afford to shrug off, rock and roll singers from an earlier era make their various adjustments to the new times. Among them are Johnny Cash, Conway Twitty, Charlie Rich and Ronnie Hawkins, who each found in rock and roll a vehicle to get him out of Arkansas, and who took something of the region's character in the way they wrote and sang, mixing it with what they picked up in Memphis, Hollywood, Nashville and Canada.
Most of us have by now encountered Johnny Cash, maybe a few when he first started as one of the Memphis rock and roll stable, dolefully insisting in a sonorous cowboy voice, "I keep a close watch on this heart of mine...I walk the line", while a couple of musicians provided a primitively simple beat. Later, as the times changed, Cash got a chorus to back him up in 'Ballad Of A Teenage Queen', and then rock and roll lost him altogether when he moved to Columbia and country and western music. If the word "heavy" has any meaning, it should be used to evoke the atmosphere of Johnny Cash's records.
Conway Twitty's 'It's Only Make Believe' is probably lodged in every other house in the country, bought by somebody's sister and kept since then to remind us of something that happened in 1958. Twitty was one of the many Southern singers who hastened to Memphis when they heard what Sam Phillips was encouraging Elvis Presley to do. But although Phillips cut some demonstration tests by Twitty, he never released anything. Twitty cut a couple of singles for Mercury, which are reputed to be wild rockers, but his big time came with MGM. Many of his records sounded like parodies of Elvis Presley's style, with that panting, throbbing style not quite disguising the fact that the singer obviously had a very good voice. Now, like Cash, Twitty is doing what he feels to be more respectable, singing country and western music. Farewell excitement, hello sentimentality.
The other two major rock and roll singers from Arkansas have not strayed so far from the music that set them up, or at least not so completely. Charlie Rich has made all kinds of records, some embarrassingly bad but others which have been among the best "real" rock and roll of the post-Beatle period. Ronnie Hawkins has recorded songs by the folk singer Gordon Lightfoot, but continues to feature a high proportion of rock and roll in his stage repertoire.
Both Rich and Hawkins moved to Memphis when the city was the centre of the South's rock and roll, but although Rich was used as a songwriter and session pianist before eventually singing (for Sun's subsidiary, Phillips International), Hawkins was never directly connected with the company.
Of the four Arkansas singers, Rich lived closest to Memphis, about 50 miles away in the north east of the state, in Colt: perhaps because he heard similar music to that played in most stations and in clubs in Memphis, he was able to adapt easily the Country Rock style. But although he wrote some good songs including 'I'm Coming Home' for Carl Mann, by the time he started singing Country Rock style. had been supplanted by "studio" rock and roll, bigger bands, choral refrains â€“ whatever Chet Atkins and RCA did with Presley determined what the rest of the industry did, even Phillips. With 'Lonely Weekends' Rich managed to use the studio techniques to improve the dramatic power of his singing, given the fine song: "Well I can make it all right, from Monday morning to Friday night, but ooh-ooh, those lonely weekends". But more often the silly vocal groups spoiled the moods that Rich's strong voice might otherwise have created, with the exception of 'Stay'.
DANCE SONGS AND BALLADS
When Phillips closed down Sun, the important singers were quickly contracted to major companies, and Rich went first to RCA, later to Epic, and then to Smash, where he was given sympathetic treatment by producer Jerry Kennedy, some good material, and excellent arrangements. The best results are conveniently collected on one LP, The Many New Sides Of Charlie Rich, which shows him to be one of the finest strong-voiced rock and roll singers, both with dance songs like 'Mohair Sam' and 'I Washed My Hands In Muddy Water' and also with dramatic ballads including 'Dance Of Love' and 'I Can't Go On'. Enthusiasts of Roy Orbison, Elvis Presley (current style), Gene Pitney, and Blood, Sweat and Tears should get this record. He doesn't wallow in sadness, but sings his feelings out, trying to tell someone about what's happening between them, knowing the note he wants, going for it, getting it, and on, with an easy confident rhythm not many singers can get.
Ronnie Hawkins has a less good voice, but he attacks songs with such determination, humour and excitement that conventional vocal qualities are irrelevant. Although Hawkins cut a single in Canada in 1957, his recording career effectively started in 1959 when he did a version of Chuck Berry's 'Thirty Days', which Hawkins increased to 'Forty Days'. The song's breathless pace, maintained by Memphis-style guitar over a Bo Diddley beat, was handled well by Hawkins' middle range tenor, which occasionally whooped with emotion. 'Horace', a track on Hawkins' first LP (not released in this country) showed Hawkins' ability as a comedian: while the band kept up another frantic rhythm, Hawkins imitated the voice of a Southern black woman calling her man down the street, capturing a childhood memory as accurately as a snapshot.
Hawkins never had a hig hit in the States, and has spent much of his time in Canada, where (according to his British fan club's magazine, The Camel Walk) he is a major star. But his most important contribution to rock and roll came surprisingly late, in 1963, when he covered two Bo Diddley songs, 'Bo Diddley' and 'Who Do You Love'. The first was a good re-creation of the original; the second was a brilliant advance on anything done with improved electrically amplified equipment.
The musicians on the record were Levon Helm, Robbie Robertson, Garth Hudson, Ricky Danko and Richard Manuel, who've since become better known as Bob Dylan's backing group and as the band (whose Music From Big Pink LP is one of the best "new rock" records). 'Who Do You Love' starts with a pounding guitar beat, gets dragged down by a strange bass guitar undertow which introduces the growling vocal; answering guitar figures lead into a scream Jay Hawkins would be glad to claim, and then an instrumental break builds the atmosphere up which incredibly gets more and more intense. "I've lived long enough and I ain't scared of dying." This is rock and roll.
Unfortunately, no records by Hawkins are currently available in Britain. If anyone is interested, maybe you could send me a letter (or a petition!) which I'll collect and show to the British company which has rights to US Roulette material. The Many Sides Of Charlie Rich was released here by Phillips, but his earlier Memphis records (apart from a couple of singles on London, long deleted) are not so accessible. His Philips International LP is described as "rare" in auctions, but several singles can be obtained at a reasonable price through the magazine Rock and Roll Collector. Beware RCA stuff by him â€“ or anyway listen first.
Â© Charlie Gillett, 1969
available with much other stuff at www.rocksbackpages.com