by Dennis Dalman
There were no signs of memory loss or creaky brains at the Sartell Senior Center recently – oh no! – not when Thom Woodward shared dozens of musical blasts from the past.
Nearly 40 senior citizens tapped their feet, and many of them sang along, remembering lyrics word-for-word from old classic rock ‘n’ roll songs. Some looked eager, as if they were about to jump up and start dancing The Twist or the Wild Watusi.
“Oh yes, remember that one?!” grinning spouses said to spouses or to people sitting at their tables.
Said one man: “I was a senior in high school when that was a hit. We used to dance to it (“Bye Bye Love” by the Everly Brothers).”
The name of Woodward’s presentation, which was peppered with snatches of recorded songs, was “Rocking and Rolling Through the Greatest Years of Rock: A History and a Claim.”
Woodward, who lives in Sartell, is a lifelong passionate music buff, assistant baseball coach at St. John’s University and former director of alumni relations for SJU.
His “claim,” as he calls it, is that the years from September 1962 to June 1966 were the greatest years in rock ‘n’ roll history because of the sheer number of creative singers-songwriters and bands, as well as the remarkable smash hits during that time. To prove his claim, Woodward used statistics culled from extensive research.
But before launching into his claim, he outlined the history of music that led up to the rock ‘n’ roll revolution. First, in the 1940s and early 1950s, there were Afro-American jump-blues and jazz, elements of gospel singing, boogie-woogie, rhythm-and-blues. Those forms of music, along with elements of country music, cross-bred so to speak, eventually leading to rock ‘n’ roll performed by both black and white singers and bands.
Rock ‘n’ roll is a jolting dose of sound and energy, driven by a backbeat (usually snare drum), as well as electric guitars and sung with attitudes of cheeky naughtiness and in-your-face rebellion, often raucously shouted or wheezed in voices that break all the rules of “proper” singing.
Many of the songs were – and are — drenched with suggestive words and phrases, a fact that drove some parents nearly crazy in the early years of rock – and even later, even now. Woodward played snatches of songs from early – mostly black – musical influences, before rock ‘n’ roll was officially “born”: Louis Jordan’s “Choo-Choo Ch-Boogie,” Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup’s “That’s All Right, Mama” (later a hit for Elvis Presley), Ruth Brown’s “Teardrops from my Eyes” and Big Mama Thornton’s “Hound Dog” (also a later Elvis hit).
Woodward noted the great bluesman Muddy Waters, sometimes considered the grandfather of rock, once said, “The Blues had a baby and they called it Rock ‘n’ Roll.”
First rock song?
The first rock ‘n’ roll song is considered by most music scholars to be “Rock Around the Clock” by Bill Haley and His Comets. That song blared, full-blast on the soundtrack of a 1955 movie of the same name. The Beatles recalled seeing that movie, hearing that song in a movie theater in Liverpool when they were young teenagers and how that song, that explosive, in-your-face, exhilarating sound knocked their socks off and led to their career.
Elvis, who combined rhythm-and-blues with white Southern-style rockabilly, exploded on the international scene in 1956 with a smash-hit rocker named “Heartbreak Hotel.” His enormous fame and controversy rapidly spread, and he became known as the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll. Soon, on radio stations and record stores, rock ‘n’ roll was ubiquitous, with a mass youth following and with music-dance shows on TV like Dick Clark’s long-running American Bandstand.
Woodward noted the “raw” sound of early rock ‘n’ roll alarmed so many parents that companies began to market “safer” singers. The rough, rebellious, erotic “edge” of rock ‘n’ roll began to be replaced, commercially, with a counter-culture of less abrasive teen idols such as Tommy Sands, Paul Anka and Fabian. Such toned-down pretty-boy singers, with their slick-and-shiny pompadour hair-dos, swept many teeny-boppers off their feet, as did young female singers like Connie Francis, Brenda Lee and “girl groups” like The Shirelles.
In the early 1960s, more musical blending began to happen with rock ‘n’ roll taking on elements of folk music, poetic lyrics, new instruments – all influences developed by Bob Dylan and the Beatles and by dozens of bands in Britain, the Beatles and Rolling Stones among them – a cultural phenomenon know as the “British Invasion.”
And that, Woodward said, is about the time the greatest four years of rock/pop music began.
There were many styles of rock ‘n’ roll during those years: Motown, Soul, Memphis blues, Chicago blues, Folk-Rock, Surfing Rock and the Garage-Band sound of which Minnesota had lots of them who made, mostly, one-hit wonders like the zany (some would say crazy) “Surfin’ Bird” by The Trashmen of Minneapolis (“Well, everybody’s heard about the bird, b-b-b-bird, b-bird’s a word . . . “). Some music critics to this day consider that song a sui generis deranged surrealistic masterpiece. Woodward noted Minnesota’s garage bands, including The Trashmen, definitely made their mark during rock’s greatest four years. They also later influenced the punk-rock movement.
Woodward noted during rock’s four greatest years, songs emerged that were not only huge hits but were – and still are – lauded critically.
In 2004, Rolling Stone magazine polled dozens of rock-music experts for a list of the 100 greatest rock/pop/country songs of all time. Five songs from 1965 made it into the top 30 on that song list:
Number one, the greatest, was “Like a Rolling Stone” by Bob Dylan, followed by number 2 “Satisfaction” by the Rolling Stones; number 13 “Yesterday” by the Beatles; number 24 “People Get Ready” by The Impressions; and number 29 “Help” by the Beatles.
The Beatles scored all of the top five Billboard hits, all at the same time, during a remarkable weeks’-long period in 1964. Other multiple hit-makers included the Dave Clark Five, Stevie Wonder, the Rolling Stones, the Beach Boys, Sam Cooke, Marvin Gaye, the Supremes, Aretha Franklin, the Byrds and so many more too numerous to mention.
Rolling Stone magazine also did a poll of the 50 most important performers in rock history. Twelve of the 20 most important, including the top five, were all stars during the 1962-66 time period. The top five in order were the Beatles, Bob Dylan, Elvis Presley, the Rolling Stones and Chuck Berry. Although Woodward did not specifically mention it, the Beatles released some of their greatest albums in that four-year period, such as Rubber Soul and Revolver; and Bob Dylan’s influence was everywhere apparent on the musical scene with the power of his poetic lyrics, especially after his stunning trio of influential masterwork albums from 1964-66: Bringing It All Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited, Blonde on Blonde.
Woodward grew up in New Jersey and graduated from high school in the mid-1960s. Since his youngest days, Woodward has amassed a huge collection of records (45s and LPs), cassettes, VCRs, CDs and virtually every other type of recorded music and video performances. He also owns a personal library of books, historical documents, valuable souvenirs and memorabilia of rock ‘n’ roll/pop music, all of which he loves to share with others.
That fact was obvious after his presentation at the Sartell Senior Center when many in the audience met with him to compare notes, reminisce about the old days and marvel about how rock-pop tunes were a daily part of all of their lives – and still are.