The Encyclopedia of Dead Rock Stars
Heroin, Handguns, and Ham Sandwiches
By Jeremy Simmonds
Chicago Review Press Incorporated Copyright © 2012 Jeremy Simmonds
All rights reserved.
(Johnstown, Pennsylvania, 15 December 1921)
The DJ widely believed to have coined the phrase 'rock 'n' roll' actually began as a jazz trombonist with a band called Sultans of Swing (thereby also providing a name for a much-later Dire Straits hit). Freed became the first broadcaster to break down the obvious barriers and play so-called 'race' music to a largely white audience when he took to the air full-time with an R & B show for the WJW station in Cleveland. Moving to the more upbeat WINS in New York, Freed – now restyled as 'Moondog' – exposed young teenagers to the likes of Chuck Berry and Bo Diddley, while bravely refusing to play the white covers of black hits his programmers suggested. This forward thinking made him a sitting target for the prejudices of the era's conservatives and racists.
However, Freed proved a flawed individual, and this cost him dearly in his working life. Initially, problems were not necessarily of his own making: appearing in movies such as Rock around the Clock, the thirty-something appeared older than his years, alienating a large section of his young audience overnight as a result. Then, when he moved to television, Freed's ABC Rock 'n' Roll Dance Party also ended abruptly after a scandal (which seems risible now) erupted when black singer Frankie Lymon (January 1968) was caught on camera dancing with a white girl, outraging Southern station affiliates. Worse still, when a live event at the Boston Arena in 1958 ended in a riot, WINS cancelled his radio contract despite the fact that any charges of incitement against Freed were soon dropped. A year later, the even greater 'payola' (money for airplay) scandal displayed his dubious business practices openly and effectively ended Freed's broadcasting career; he was found guilty on two counts of accepting commercial bribery a couple of years later and made 'industry scapegoat' for what pretty much everybody else in the game had been doing for years.
'Live fast, die young, make a good-looking corpse'
An internal injury sustained in a car accident in 1953 returned to haunt Alan Freed – by 1965 a shadow of his former self and ostracized by many of his former acolytes. As he drifted from satellite town to satellite town in search of broadcasting work, Freed's health began to fail. Virtually bankrupted by his legal debts and drinking heavily, he checked into a hospital in Palm Springs on 15 January 1965 – just as charges of tax evasion were levied against him. Freed died five days later from uraemia and cirrhosis of the liver before he could answer any of those charges. He went to the grave penniless – a far cry from just a few years before, when he had been able to claim thousands of dollars a day for his services.
Despite the (arguably heavy-handed) treatment Freed received towards the end of his life, the Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame Museum, which opened in 1986, was nevertheless situated in Cleveland in honour of one of its sons' great achievements.
Nat 'King' Cole
(Nathaniel Coles - Montgomery, Alabama, 17 March (most likely) 1917)
Those rich, velveteen tones that seemed the aural equivalent of melting Bournville were actually the result of sixty smokes a day. His millions of fans may have thanked him for this concession to vocal gravitas, but his lungs did not: Nat Cole succumbed to cancer before he was fifty. Remembered as one of the twentieth century's finest interpreters of a song, Cole was also a gifted pianist, playing 'Yes, We Have No Bananas' at the age of four to anyone who would listen. A few years on, Cole landed a residency with his older brother, Eddie, at the Panama Club, Chicago – and had not left his teens behind by the time they had recorded their first side. Promotion of his renamed 'King Cole Trio' by Lionel Hampton subsequently set Cole on a more upwardly mobile path, and before long Capitol were ready to offer a major-label contract. Their new charge was shortly the most successful artist the label had ever known, their premises on Hollywood and Vine thereafter referred to as 'The House That Nat Built'. Cole could even claim the distinction of placing the first ever number-one LP on Billboard's charts. If the King Cole Trio had been a success, Cole's solo career, with the band now very much his back-up, was the stuff of legend: in the latter half of 1947, Cole recorded some eighty songs – more than most artists manage in a career. Many of these became hits, though the most sublime was surely Eden Ahbez's 'Nature Boy', an uplifting minor chord air that stirs the soul to this day. It sat at number one for two months in 1948, while Cole was on honeymoon with his second wife, singer Maria Ellington. Cole hit 50 million sales sometime in 1960 – many recordings backed by The Four Knights (three of whom – Gene Alford, John Wallace and Clarence Dixon – have also since died) – and became the first black artist to front his own television showcase. During this time he would still periodically moonlight at the piano.
By 1964, Cole began to notice a sinister loss in weight as he toured with his band. This made him irritable, the change only too noticeable in this man of otherwise impeccable manner and mood. Always a heavy smoker, Cole was informed of a malignant tumour discovered in his lung; it was then only a matter of time. Following a walk on the beach with his wife early in 1965, Cole died quietly in his sleep – giving the lie to all the trade papers' notices that he was 'doing fine'.
The Blues Council
With a vibrant British blues scene fragmenting in the early sixties, one of the most impressive (if shortlived) line-ups must have been that of Glasgow's Blues Council. This hard-touring band revolved around noted saxophonist Bill Patrick, raw young guitarist Leslie Harvey (the latter doubtless encouraged by the already raucous lifestyle and reputation of his better-known brother, Alex), drummer Billy Adamson, sax-player Larry Quinn and pianist John McGinnis, and was completed by bassist James Giffen and singer and frontman Fraser Calder. Parlophone issued their dynamic debut single, 'Baby Don't Look Down', to extensive local airplay in late 1964, and, as the year turned, all appeared rosy.
Theirs was very much a name known only in Scotland, though, and events sadly did not allow their reputation to spread further. On the way home from a gig in Edinburgh, the band's tour van crashed outside Glasgow, killing Calder and Giffen instantly. Despite Patrick's drafting-in of yet another saxophonist, Bobby Wishart, to the despondent survivors there was no way The Blues Council could continue, and before the summer they had gone their separate ways: Bill Patrick hooked up with The Sensational Alex Harvey Band, John McGinnis started Sock 'Em JB and Les Harvey eventually joined Stone the Crows. For Harvey, however, the tragedy would prove merely a precursor to one of the most dramatic deaths in rock history, seven years later ( May 1972).
See alsoAlex Harvey (February 1982)
Sonny Boy Williamson II
(Aleck Ford 'Rice' Miller - Mississippi,
12 March 1905 (or 1908, or 12 December 1899))
As the title of his 1953 album suggested, Sonny Boy Williamson 'II' was always 'clownin' with the world'. With more front than a hundred wooden porches, the blues harmonica-player 'borrowed' his assumed name from that of contemporary blues harpist John Lee Williamson, towards the end of his life hoodwinking many into believing he was indeed the original 'Sonny Boy'.
A gifted performer in his own right, Williamson was born into a sharecropper's family, and lived the familiar bluesman's life of a wandering minstrel, playing every juke joint in town, trying to scratch a living. It was, however, a regular Arkansas radiostation KFFA slot presenting King Biscuit Time (sponsored by King Biscuit flour) that made him a star locally and an influence on other Delta-blues players. Among his self-written pieces were 'One Way Out' (later a hit for The Allman Brothers) and 'Nine Below Zero'. "When he signed, as late as 1950, to Lillian McMurry's Trumpet label (and thereafter Chess), many of his minimalist harmonica workouts found their way on to disc at last. Williamson's talent didn't go unnoticed by the new breed either and, before he died, this excellent craftsman visited Europe and recorded with The Animals and The Yardbirds. (Such was Williamson's history of telling tall stories, many back home refused to believe he had travelled to Britain, let alone played with its top rock musicians.)
Williamson returned to the USA to resume King Biscuit Time in 1964, his alcoholism now exacerbated by the tuberculosis he knew was killing him. Struggling not to cough up blood during his performances, he played an impromptu jam, now the stuff of folklore, with the group Levon & The Hawks (who went on to become Bob Dylan's back-up unit The Band) just a fortnight before he passed away. Williamson's failure to show up to present his radio show in May 1965 prompted KFFA to send someone to rouse him – but it was too late. Williamson had died in his sleep at his boarding house in Helena, Arkansas. Stonemasons wrongly engraved the date of death on Williamson's headstone as '23 June'. Despite obvious discrepancies over his birth date, this is an error.
(Shreveport, Louisiana, 3 June 1940)
One of the more versatile of the era's slew of vocal quartets, The Olympics began in 1954 as The Challengers while still at high school in Compton, California. Initially, this group was moulded more in the style of The Coasters than the standard doo-wop unit, onstage schtick between members setting up novelty tunes such as their popular debut, US number-eight hit 'Western Movies' (Demon, 1958 – a witty number in which the narrator bemoans his girlfriend's addiction to cowboy pictures), which also made the UK Top Twenty. The group's first line-up comprised Walter 'Sleepy' Ward (who died in December 2006 – lead), Eddie Lewis (tenor), Walter Hammond (baritone) and – often at the heart of the operation – Charles Fizer (tenor/baritone), who joined following a talent contest. Fizer was certainly a larger-than-life character, finding himself in the hands of the law more than once in his short life; just as The Olympics were enjoying their biggest success he found himself on an enforced 'sabbatical' from the band when a prison sentence for drugs possession kept him away for a year (he was replaced by Melvin King).
Cut to 11 August 1965: days after masses of black music fans had chanted the positive slogan 'Burn, baby, burn!' at the Stax Revue in Watts, Los Angeles, the phrase itself was to take on a darker hue. As black brothers Marquette and Ronald Frye travelled into South Central in their 1950 Buick, they were stopped by a California Highway Patrol, who believed the driver to be intoxicated. With little apparent motive, the police hauled Marquette from the car and set about punching and kicking him and slamming him in his own car door; even the Fryes' mother found herself handcuffed, slapped and hit when she attempted to intervene. Within an hour, South LA was in the middle of the most violent racial uprising it had ever witnessed, with Watts at the very epicentre. Following early altercations, the Los Angeles Times talked of 'rocks flying, then wine and whiskey bottles, concrete, pieces of wood – the targets anything strange to the neighbourhood'.
By the weekend, Lyndon B Johnson described a 'disaster area', and the LAPD admitted that the situation was out of their control; there would inevitably be casualties as they stepped up attempts to regain the township. The majority of these would be innocents, in the wrong place at the wrong time, most of them black. One such was Charles Fizer. On 14 August, day three of the uprising, Fizer – very much a reformed character since his incarceration – was making his way innocently to an Olympics rehearsal when he was hit by National Guard bullets and died on the street. He was just one of thirty-four to die that week; Melvin King's sister was another, on the very same afternoon. A further thousand were injured and four times that many arrested as Watts was razed to the ground over six days. A neglected suburb for years – and with a particularly poor record for police brutality – it lay desolate, a charred monument to years of oppression. Devastated by the events of 14 August, Melvin King played just one more performance before throwing in the towel with The Olympics. His replacement, Mack Starr, died equally tragically following a motorcycle accident in Los Angeles (June 1981).
(William Patton Black Jr - Memphis, Tennessee, 17 September 1926)
Bill Black's Combo
Scotty & Bill
Doug Poindexter & The Starlight Wranglers
Guitarist Bill Black was well situated to join up with the biggest star popular music had ever seen, though ironically his time as bass-player behind Elvis Presley proved far less lucrative – or artistically rewarding – than working with his own band, Bill Black's Combo. Sam Phillips was fast to spot Black's potential, prising him and guitarist cohort Scotty Moore away from his own hoedown act Doug Poindexter & The Starlight Wranglers before lining them up to record with the young Presley at Sun Records. Over four years, the pair cut some hugely influential sides with the King, 'That's All Right Mama' (1954), 'All Shook Up' and 'Jailhouse Rock' (both 1957) among them. One problem, however, was the sharp practice of Colonel Tom Parker as Elvis's star went supernova. Believing his charge to be a level above the others (and more than a little concerned at Black's often commanding stage presence), Parker was not prepared to pay Scotty and Bill much more than a basic union wage. By 1958 the pair had cut and run. As frontman for Bill Black's Combo, Black – strangely forgotten by many today – was as prolific as he was successful: in six years he recorded a remarkable fourteen albums, shifting 5 million units.
Early in 1965, Bill Black was diagnosed with a brain tumour. Devastated, and feeling his time was limited, he signed over responsibilities for the band to guitarist Bob Tucker (who would front them into the 1980s) before undergoing the first of three operations. On 8 October, after the third operation, Black slipped into a coma from which he did not recover, and died two weeks later at the Baptist Memorial Hospital in Memphis – the very same hospital at which Presley himself was pronounced dead, nearly twelve years later (August 1977). Although visiting Black's widow, Evelyn, and three children, a saddened Elvis Presley did not attend his former friend's funeral, fearing that his presence would 'turn it into a circus'.
(Sagamore, Pennsylvania, 2 October 1929)
Rockabilly has never been noted as a genre for throwing up heart-throbs, but Eddie Sulik, with his immaculate hair, cleft chin and composed off camera gaze when on photo duty, was surely one of the few. A comparative latecomer to fame, Sulik was, in his early career, one half of The Echoes, a popular Nashville vocal duo who scored a few minor hits with Columbia. A return to solo work and a seemingly endless schedule of club dates kept Sulik's clear vocal tones in the public ear during the early sixties, his oeuvre drawn from rock 'n' roll, country, pop and Latin. His success was still fairly regional, but in 1965, a recording/publishing deal with guitar-giant Chet Atkins and Archie Bleyer of Cadence Records looked to be on the cards.
Eddie Sulik never made the meeting that would probably have changed his life. The night before the conference in New York City, Sulik was killed in an automobile crash near his home in Connecticut; the songs he had prepared on tape for Atkins and Bleyer remained unheard until released by Sulik's son, Eddie Jr, as A Farewell Legacy some thirty-four years later. (Continues...)
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