One hundred fourteen years ago, May 26, 1907, in Winterset, Iowa,
Marion Robertson Morrison was born.
You may know him as "John Wayne" king of the cowboy movies.
Though he died of cancer in 1979, Marion was in the news because of his
embrace of white supremacy in an old Playboy interview. His political
conservatism was no secret. Hell, he publicly supported Sen. Joe McCarthy in
the 1950s and for awhile was a member of the
John Birch Society.
This post is to re-fight that battle. This is a music blog, so if you want to
argue politics, take it to Twitter.
John Wayne made a major contribution to rock 'n' roll when Buddy Holly and
fellow Crickt Jerry Allison picked up the Duke's catch phrase from his 1956
movie The Searchers. You might have heard this before:
Some John Wayne movies themselves had very bitchen songs. Here are a few of
them, starting off with "My Rifle, My Pony and Me" featuring Dean Martin and
Ricky Nelson (from Rio Bravo, 1959.)
I don't think Walter Brennan is really playing harmonica here.
Johnny Horton found the bonanza gold with this theme from
North to Alaska (1960)
Also in 1960, John Wayne starred as Davy Crocket in The Alamo, which
had this song by Marty Robbins:
The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962) is my favorite John Wayne
movie. I also love the song of the same title, performed by Gene Pitney and
written by Burt Bacharach and Hal David. The song didn't actually appear in
the movie, but Pitney says Paramount Pictures paid for the recording.
To conclude, The Mekons did a song in the 1990s celebrating, in their own peculiar way, the legacy of Marion Robert Morrison:
It all started in 1871, when tailor Jacob Davis of Reno, Nevada, had a problem. The pants he was making for miners weren’t tough enough to stand up to the conditions in local mines; among other issues, the pockets and button fly were constantly being torn. “A miner’s wife came up to Davis and asked him to come up with pants that could withstand some abuse,” says curator Nancy Davis (no relation), from the American History Museum. Davis looked at the metal fasteners he used on harnesses and other objects. “At that time, he came up with the riveted trousers.”
As local miners snapped up the overalls he made with rivet-strengthened stress points and durable “duck cloth,” a type of canvas, Davis realized he needed to protect his idea. “He had to rush, due to the fact that these worked really well,” says Nancy Davis. “He realized he had something.” Lacking the money to file documents, he turned to Levi Strauss, a German immigrant who had recently opened a branch of his family’s dry-goods store in San Francisco, and the two took out a patent on a pair of pants strengthened with rivets.
... In the latter half of the 20th century—decades after Strauss’ death in 1902—blue jeans achieved widespread cultural significance. “They really come to their apex in the 60s and 70s,” Davis says. “The interesting thing is that this particular type of pants, the blue jeans, have become international,” she adds. “It’s what people think of. When they think of America, they think of blue jeans.”
In the 1950s, blue jeans became a symbol of tough-guy cool.
"James Dean’s costume department in Rebel Without a Cause, for example, used denim to mark out their leading man as a smoldering icon of youthful rebellion," wrote Tristan Kennedy in Vice a couple of years ago.
And naturally that smoldering image of youth rebellion leaked over into rock 'n' roll.
Rockabilly wizard Gene Vincent had at least two songs that mentioned blue jeans in the title. The first was "Blue Jean Bop" from 1956:
Then in 1957 came Gene's "Red Blue Jeans and a Ponytail":
But you didn't have to be a hard boppin' rockabilly to dig the denim. One
teen-idol schmaltz peddler, Jimmy Clanton linked this style of trousers to
Neil Diamond knew the appeal of Jacob W. Davis' fashion innovation:
So did David Bowie:
The country music world also produced songs about blue jeans. Here Mel
McDaniels celebrates unrestrained gawking at the buttocks of denim-clad
And all Conway Twitty wanted to do was get into the jeans of a rich
Often in small-town politics, success comes not from what you know or even who you know. It's who you're related to. And sometimes that's the case in the rock 'n' roll biz.
Nepotism isn't all that rampant in the world of rock. But back in the 1960s there were several acts that definitely benefitted from having famous parents. (Not that this phenomenon stopped 50 years. Think Jakob Dylan, Julian Lennon, Wilson-Phillips, Dweezil Zappa, Miley Cyrus, Shooter Jennings, etc.) While much the music made by the children of famous entertainers is pretty bad, some actually is quite good.
Here are several examples of what we'll call Nepo-Rock, mostly from the 1960s, when I was in elementary school and junior high.
Let's start with Dino, Desi and Billy. Dino was the son of Dean Martin while Desi was the son of Desi Arnaz and Lucille Ball, thus making him the inspiration for Little Ricky on I Love Lucy. Billy Hinsche isn't the spawn of famous folks. (And he's the only one who continued a career in music, going on to become a touring member of The Beach Boys. And his sister Annie married Carl Wilson, which I guess was another form of nepotism.)
Here's DD&B's first and biggest hit, a watered-down mutation of "Louie Louie":
Here is the son of comedic great Jerry Lewis, though I'm not sure that the French consider Gary Lewis to be a genius. With his band The Playboys (not to be confused with Bob Wills & The Texas Playboys or John Fred & His Playboy Band).
Full disclosure: I saw Gary Lewis & The Playboys live at Wedgewood amusement park in Oklahoma City back when they hot. (But I liked Sam the Sham & The Pharaohs, who I saw at Springlake amusement park around the same time, much better.)
Gary's biggest hit, of course, was "This Diamond Ring." But he had several successful singles, and the one below, "Save Your Heart for Me," was a cheesy delight:
Noel Harrison was the son of actor Rex Harrison. I hardly ever heard Noel on the radio, but he was a frequent guest on TV variety show in the mid '60s Around the same time that daddy Rex was delighting children and talking to the animals as Doctor Doolittle, young Noel was singing pensive tunes such as "The Windmills of Your Mind" and this one, a tragic cautionary tale for wayward youth:
While Dino, Desi and Gary were pretty lame, and Noel Harrison was kind of interesting, there is one celebrity child who stood out. Being the daughter of Frank Sinatra -- who in. addition to being one of the world's most famous singer also ran a record company (Reprise) -- certainly didn't hurt her career. But I believe Nancy Sinatra would have made it anyway with her talent, charisma, sex appeal and her not-so-secret weapon of producer, songwriter and collaborator Lee Hazelwood.
I've already blogged not too long ago about Nancy's biggest hit, but here's one I've always liked a little more. Not only is it the best, "get-away-from-me-you-creep-or-my-boyfriend-will-beat-the-crap-out-of-you" song this side of The Angels' "My Boyfriend's Back," it's also got that great out-of-nowhere psychedelic freakout in the middle:
Listening recently to Surrounded by Time, the latest album by Tom Jones, I was struck by the Welch belter's version of a favorite old folk song that's been recorded by many artists old and new: "Samson and Delilah." Now ol' Tom decades ago recorded another song about a lady named Delilah, but this new one, produced by Ethan Johns and Mark Woodward, sounds like battered olold shaman telling a Bible story from the world of dreams.
I always assumed that "Samson" was written by the Reverend Gary Davis, who recorded it in the 1950s. But according to music historian Elijah Wald, the song goes back much further. Wald says the tune can be traced to "Wasn’t that a Witness for My Lord,” which he says is "a sort of musical compendium of Bible stories, which included three verses about Samson, two of which are close to what Davis sang." This song was mentioned in a 1909 article about African American spirituals by sociologist Howard Odum.
And a few decades before Davis told of Samson bare-handedly slaying a lion who'd "killed a man with his paws," there were at least three versions recorded in the late 1920s by three men: Blind Willie Johnson in Dallas, Rev. T.E. Weems in Atlanta and Rev. T.T. Rose in Chicago.
All three were clearly based on the same source, though each performer had edited the lyric somewhat differently to fit a three-minute 78 rpm disc. I guessed the source must have been a published broadside (a printed song sheet with lyrics but no music), and eventually found a copy of that broadside in John Lomax’s papers at the University of Texas.
So let's have a listen to these various "Samson and Delilahs, shall we?
Here's Blind Willie Johnson:
This is how Rev. Weems saw that momentous haircut:
What do you say, Rev. Rose?
Rev. Gary Davis spread the word of Samson to a new generation of folkies and rockers. (Strange fact I just made up: The little girl with Rev.Davis pictured in the video grew up to be Courtney Love!)
The Staple Singers knew a great soul gospel tune when they heard it:
Surely the most famous version of the Samson saga was by The Grateful Dead:
One of my favorite takes was by The Blasters in the early '80s. Singing background vocals were The Jordanairres, Elvis’ old gospel-flavored background group:
Finally, Tom Jones takes Samson into a strange dimension: