Before there was rock & roll, there was New Orleans’ Fats Domino playing his piano and offering his brand of Creole rhythm and blues. You can learn how much Fats influenced rock & roll music, especially that of the Beatles, by picking up and reading my new book Come Together: How the Baby Boomers, the Beatles, and a Young Counterculture Combined to Create the Music of the Woodstock Generation.
It’s available exclusively at the Politics and Prose bookstore in Washington, DC, or you can order it online by clicking here.
Once the sounds of rock n’ roll started filling the airwaves by the late-1950s, it was only a matter of time until someone would record and release the first Christmas-themed rock song destined to become a holiday classic.
And that honor goes to Bobby Helms with his 1957 hit “Jingle Bell Rock”.
Although today, Helms is considered a relatively obscure artist, the rockabilly singer had recorded two #1 hits on the country chart – “Frauline” and the still-performed doo-wop classic “My Special Angel” before “Jingle Bell Rock,” which peaked at #6 on the Billboard Chart. Helms’ version charted again in 1958 and 1960.
At first, Helms, who had moved to Nashville from his native Indiana, didn’t think much of the tune, which is credited to songwriters Joseph Beale and James Booth. Helms claims he and session guitarist Hal Garland worked to improve the song including adding the bridge which begins “What a bright time, it’s the right time, to rock the night away …”. Neither Helms nor Garland ever received songwriting credit for their work.
“It was such a bad song. So, me and one of the musicians (Garland) worked on it for about an hour, putting a melody and a bridge to it,” Helms said during a 1992 interview which appeared in the Indianapolis Star. “I really didn’t want to record it, but now I’m sure glad I did”.
For his part, Garland, is recognized as one of Nashville’s greatest session guitarists, playing on records by Elvis Presley, Patsy Cline, the Everly Brothers, and Roy Orbison. Producer and guitarist Chet Atkins called Garland, who also played on the other 1950s rock-and-roll holiday classic, Brenda Lee’s “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree,” the best guitar player “to ever come out of Nashville”.
“Jingle Bell Rock” has been recorded by artists as diverse as The Platters, the Beach Boys, and southern rockers .38 Special. Two cover versions have made the charts. In 1962, a Philly version by Chubby Checker and Bobby Rydell made it to #40 in England and in 1983 a version by another pair of Philly musicians Daryl Hall and John Oates peaked at #6 on Billboard’s holiday play chart.
Helms’ song has been featured in dozens of TV shows and three holiday movies – Lethal Weapon 1, Home Alone 2: Lost in New York, and Jingle All the Way, all of which brought new, younger listeners to his classic.
Obviously, “Jingle Bell Rock” resurfaces each season from November to New Year’s Day and continues to be popular. It has sold more than 1 million copies in the United States alone. In 2016, StationIntel rated the song as the third most played that season. In that same year, the song was downloaded 700,000 times according Nielsen SoundScan, making it the 9th most popular song that Christmas season. Rolling Stone magazine names “Jingle Bell Rock” as the 10th greatest Christmas song of all-time, while Esquire magazine has it in 16th place in its list.
Helms’ Christmas classic, along with his other work, helped secure him a place in the Rockabilly Hall of Fame. Even though he never had another big hit, Helms continued to tour and perform for three decades after the release of “Jingle Bell Rock”. He died in 1997 at age 63 in Indiana.\
1967 was a year filled with psychedelic sights and mind-expanding sounds.
On London’s Carnaby Street, fashion boutiques were offering hip, wild, colorful clothing for with-it British men and women. Meanwhile, young Americans from San Francisco to New York City were letting their hair grow long, while simultaneously tuning in and turning on to marijuana, LSD, and the sounds of Jimi Hendrix, Pink Floyd, and the Vanilla Fudge. And reflective of all that was swirling around them, the Beatles produced their pot and acid-drenched masterpiece Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.
To say that the album was revolutionary in its time is understatement. But earlier this month, the Mark Morris Dance Group proved that more than 50 years later, there still is innovation to be found in the musical masterpiece.
For three sold-out nights at the Kennedy Center in Washington DC, the New York City-based dance company, directed by noted ballet and opera choreographer Mark Morris, presented the group’s reworking of Sgt. Pepper’s titled Pepperland, a stunning visual dance performance set to six much-altered Beatles songs and seven original pieces composed by pianist Ethan Iverson.
Here is a summation of the one-hour performance from score notes by Iverson, who led the seven-member live pit band which included a single vocalist, two keyboardists, a trumpeter, a trombonist, a percussionist, and, most interestingly, a theramin player. (For those not familiar with the theramin, and many in the performance hall were not, the one-of-a-kind electronic instrument is a single oscillator with two metal rods used to change pitch and amplitude controlled by a single performer using hand gestures above the rods):
Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band
The original album ended with an unprecedented effect, a very long chord. Fifty years later, perhaps a similar chord is a good place to begin …
A formal invocation of personalities from the LP cover
With a Little Help from My Friends
When Ringo sang it, he was on top of the world. Our version is more vulnerable.
In an age of Tinder, a Lonely Heart advertisement might seem hopelessly quaint. But everyone has always needed to find a match.
When I’m Sixty-Four
In between 6 and 4 is 5. All three counts (to the bar are heard) are heard beneath the music-hall scuffle.
A single offhand line from “Sgt. Pepper” germinates into a full-fledged sonata.
Within You Without You
George Harrison’s sincere study of Indian music aligns easily with another Harrison interested in bringing the East to the West: the great composer Lou Harrison, one of Mark Morris’s most significant collaborators. The hippie-era sentiment of the lyric remains startlingly fresh and relevant today.
Glenn Gould said he preferred Petula Clark to the Beatles. Apparently, Gould, Clark, and a chord progression from “Sgt. Pepper” all seemed to have inspired this mod number.
The first thing we hear on the LP is a blues guitar lick, here transformed into a real blues for the horns to blow on. Wilbur Scoville invented the scale to measure hot sauce: The original Sgt. Pepper?
After seeing Bach’s Brandenburg on the telly, Paul McCartney came into the studio and told George Martin to add piccolo trumpet to “Penny Lane”. Indeed, detailed references to European classical music are one reason so many Beatles’ songs still stump the average cover band.
Not on “Sgt. Pepper,” but nonetheless originally planned to be, and, of course, especially relevant to the city of Liverpool.
A Day in the Life
Theremin nocturne, vocal descant, apotheosis.
Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band
Another unprecedented effect on the original LP was a reprise of the first theme, which is part of why it is called the first concept album. Our later vantage point enables us to project into the next decade, the ‘70s, and conjure a disco ball. Thank you, Beatles. Thank you, Sgt. Pepper.
For my first 64 years on the planet, I never gave any serious thought to writing a book. But in 2017, I discovered the main thing you need for a book – a good idea. Sailing on our first-ever rock cruise, which featured Gregg Allman, I discovered 2,700 rock fans paying at least $2,000 each to hear music that was supposed to be just a passing teenage fad in the mid-1950s. I wondered how exactly did this come to pass.
And now today, 3 years later, my first book — Come Together: How the Baby Boomers, the Beatles, and a Youth Counterculture Combined to Create the Music of the Woodstock Generation — has been published and released.
For now, it is available exclusively at the Politics and Prose book store in Washington, DC. It can also be ordered from the Politics and Prose website. However, the book will be rolling out in other places and as an e-book soon.