My Love Affair with Rhythm and Blues: From Solomon Burke to Sam and Dave to Laura Lee

Solomon Burke (King Solomon), Bert Berns, and Cissy Houston, Burke’s backup singer

Jerry Lee and Buddy Holly

I started early. I was eight years old in 1956 and, yes, I remember Elvis on Ed Sullivan. But what really caught my eye was what I witnessed on American Bandstand two years later. I was channel-flipping and caught a glimpse of some blue-eyed devil pounding the piano as balls of fire appeared and disappeared in the backdrop. Jerry Lee Lewis tossed his hair as he played driving his curly blonde locks forward into his face, then back. In grammar school, this created a dilemma for the boys, for virtually all of us had greased pompadours which didn’t move. If we wanted to act like Jerry Lee, we had to give up the grease. Some, like Christopher Giordano, who had beautiful, thick black hair, gave up the grease. The rest of us didn’t. My older cousin, Jeff Palmisano, was really into Buddy Holly and whenever we would take the train to Yankee Stadium, Peggy Sue would always find its way onto his transitor radio dial after relentless dial-switching. Those bongos at the beginning were our national anthem.

Murray the K and the Brooklyn Fox

I really didn’t know about rhythm and blues in the early sixties because I never strayed from the New York rock and roll radio dials like WABC, WMCA and WINS. However, one disc jockey on WINS was determined to introduce us white rock and rollers to some rhythm and blues, whether we liked it or not. On the radio, Murray the K always gave an extra nudge to Marvin Gaye’s Hitch Hike or Pride and Joy. He would play The Marvelettes and especially King Solomon Burke, even when they were barely in the top 25. It was like Murray’s “up yours” to the standardized play list.

What really took this to a higher level for me was that Murray also hosted shows at the Brooklyn Fox Theatre. The acts he had included Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, the Temptations, The Isley Brothers and Mary Wells, mixed with some white acts like Dion and the Belmonts, or Roy Orbison. Murray’s shows really drew Blacks and whites into the shows. I didn’t have anyone to go with because my friends were mostly Italian and Irish and still into the fading Doo-Wop stuff. So, I took the train from Jamaica, Queens to Brooklyn, bought a ticket and went in. It was hard to be there by myself, but that show made it well worth the anxiety. I kept going to the Brooklyn Fox alone but got support by just being with other people who dug the music. One time I happened to get good seats close to the stage when the Ronettes were performing.  Looking up at them in their bee-hive hair dos, in their short-tight skirts, singing Be My Baby? Take a number.

Rhythm and Blues in the Big Apple: WWRL and WLIB

As I remember it, during the show Murray brought in a couple of Black disc jockeys to introduce the acts. The disc jockeys also named the radio stations they worked for. This was big news for me. I went home and fished around on my transistor radio dial until I found the stations: WWRL and WLIB. Once I found those stations, I rarely switched back. I still remember the WWRL line-up of disc jockeys – The Dixie Drifter, Hal Atkins, Bob T (white guy) Rocky G in the afternoon and Frankie (The Love-Man) Crocker in the evenings. Frankie would introduce himself, “Tall, tan, young and fly, push mama, sock it to me mama”. Check out his two-minute introduction to his show:

Here comes the wall and the syrup: crisis of rock and rock in the early 1960s

When I entered high school in 1962, rock and roll was two years into a crisis. The Catholic high school I went to was composed of the preppies (middle-class) and the trades (working-class). My family was middle-class so the program I was in was “college prep”. But the guys I played baseball with in my neighborhood were working-class and so I identified with them. My neighborhood friends were like those in the trades in high school, so I identified with the high schoolers in the trades, though I never took any trades courses. I hated the preppies and their music: the fuckin’ Beach Boys, Jan and Dean, you know, surfer crap. But teenagers in the trades (also known as hoods) were lost musically. Except for Dion and the Belmonts and the Four Seasons, doo-wop was over.

Rock and Roll and popular music were changing for the worse. There were a lot more strings in the music, and even people like Ray Charles and Dinah Washington had violins in their songs. Even great female singers like Connie Francis, Brenda Lee and Timi Yuro, all of whom have very powerful voices, had to contend with full orchestras. The same thing happened to great male vocalists like Roy Orbison and Gene Pitney. Phil Spector’s “wall of sound” completely over-powered his singers, even good singers like the Righteous Brothers or Ike and Tina Turner. All these singers could have done the same songs with a lead and base guitar, drums, piano, organs, horns and gospel singers. That was plenty. This was the era of the “Bobbys”. Bobby Vee was very good at imitating Buddy Holly, without the drive. Bobby Rydell’s Wild One was hardly wild compared to what I was used to. Then there was Bobby Vinton singing Roses are Red (My Love). Awful schlock.

So, I was caught between the surfer sound, the fading doo-wop, the violin- drenched syrup strings and the big sound of Phil Spector. Is this the legacy of Chuck Berry, Little Richard and Jerry Lee? I hoped not. The “British Invasion” blew the roof off three years of Rock and Roll decline. In fact, the early Stones songs and Animals did covers of Chuck Berry or old bluesmen.  I never liked the British sound, but when I look at the condition of rock and roll before they arrived, I could well understand why rock and roll fans gravitated to them. But at the time I had no use for the Brits either.

Coming Out for Rhythm and Blues

Then there was me, alone with WWRL and WLIB and no one to talk to. In my junior year (1965) I started to come out musically. More Black music was being played on the white stations because some of the songs had become hits. Ooh, Baby Baby by the Miracles had made the top ten and the Temptations The Way you Do the Things You Do must have gotten into the top 20. The racist preppies had to deal with it. I started making drawings on the cover of my notebook of Smokey and the Miracles. I was hostilely teased and called a “you know what” lover. I considered it a badge of honor.

Don’t Touch that Dial (I do)

I played baseball in the sandlots of Jamaica, Queens from the time I was 8 years old to the time I was 20, between 1956 and 1968. From the time I was about 12 years old, our neighborhood team got into leagues which required us to play in places up to about an hour away from where we lived. The guys I played ball with were all working-class, mostly Italian and Irish. These were not the kids I wanted to share Dark End of the Street by James Carr with. My radio was set to the Black stations along with the rock stations. My musical tastes never became an issue on my team because the players drove to the field in different cars. Since I lived some distance from them, it made more sense to drive to the field by myself.

On the morning of one Saturday game, I received a phone call from Brenden Rice, a big tough Irish catcher, telling me there was something wrong with his car. He, Bobby Sacco and Bernard Rubino wanted to know if they could ride with me. The first thing that crossed my mind was my car radio and the setting of the dials. I couldn’t say no, but I had to decide whether I was going to change the settings on the dial or leave them as they were. After all, it was my car. Then I started to think about what they would say when they turned on the radio and saw where the dial was set. “What’s this n……. shit?” Not only would this haranguing go on as we were going to the game, and on the way home, but over the weeks and months. My musical tastes would spread like wild-fire among my teammates. I had no allies. I played ball with the same guys for ten years. They could make my life a living hell. I felt bad for doing this, but I changed the settings.

I find an ally: Billy Whitrock (1965-66)

In my junior and senior years in high school, I became friends with Billy Whitrock. Billy was from a tough Irish working-class background and he loved the Knicks. In those days the white kids I hung out with stayed away from basketball because the players were mostly black. Since I followed the Knicks, it was great to have someone to talk to.

Basketball, like any sport, has its flashier players who tend to excite the fans. On the Knicks there was Walt (Clyde) Frazer and Dick Barnett. When Barnet played for the Lakers, he would spell Jerry West. When he came in, he came in shooting. Every time he got the ball he would shoot. He could put up 10-15 points during the 5-6 minutes while he was in. He was also a street basketball player, he had crazy moves that would thrill everybody. I was so happy when the Knicks got him because I knew he was a star. Most of the white people I knew used to get upset when the black players would do something unnecessarily fancy, claiming they were showing off. I never felt that way and I was happily surprised when Billy responded by leaping out of his seat and slipping me some skin during the Knick games we attended. We used to laugh and shake our heads when we saw the players in their street clothes – alligator shoes, mink coats, big hats. Out-a-sight.

Somehow our love of the Knicks basketball team morphed into Billy’s growing appreciation of rhythm and blues music. As we got closer, I slowly revealed to him my taste in music. He would come to my house, and I would play my 45s for him. I started him out with the stuff that was cross-over groups – The Miracles, The Temptations, The Four Tops. But it wasn’t long before I laid down the heavier stuff: the Wicked Pickett, Sam and Dave, Rufus Thomas. Then he asked me where I heard these songs because he never heard them on the normal rock stations. I revealed my big secret: WWRL and WLIB play nothing but rhythm and blues. I showed him where they were on the radio dial. I knew I had a convert.

UPS Worker Richie Garone Takes Me Deep into Funk and Blues (1967)

In 1967 I got a part-time job at night unloading trucks for UPS. The guys unloading the trucks were hip, working-class guys and we would play music as we were unloading. Most of the music was rhythm and blues even though everyone was white. The ringleader of the workers was Richie Garone. Richie was a very handsome Italian guy with long black hair. He was a very funny, cynical guy who really didn’t care what people thought of him. The crew members loved that he was that way. He also knew a great deal about rhythm and blues. In fact, I never met a white guy who knew more than I did. He was more into the hard, funky stuff like Joe Tex, Solomon Burke, Freddie Scott, and The Meters. He would gently make fun of the Motown music I liked. Richie told me it was Black bubble gum, and he was right. I told him how much I liked Solomon Burke’s song Cry to Me. To my amazement the next day he brought into work a 45 of Freddie Scott singing the same song that was astounding. Since then, I’ve never forgotten that song.

I once got into a big argument with Richie about who did a better version of Respect: Aretha or Otis. I actually convinced him why Aretha’s was better. That did wonders for my musical confidence. But Richie and his friends had another secret for me, the blues.

They liked the white bands like the Paul Butterfield Blues Band and Ten Years After. They also knew about people I hadn’t heard of like Sonny Boy Williamson, Lightnin’ Hopkins, Howlin’ Wolf and Muddy Waters. One time after work we went back to one of their houses. They got me stoned for the first time as we listened to Big Mama Thornton, Etta James, and Little Walter.

Rhythm and Blues in Central Park (1968) and Rosie baby

Nineteen sixty-eight was a very special year for me. In the summer of that year, I started going to the free concerts in Central Park in Manhattan. They were held in a band shelter with exceptional acoustics, as I was soon to find out. The Sunday entertainment section of The Daily News had the schedule for the entire summer laid out so I could pick and choose what I wanted to see. The two acts I will never forget were Little Anthony and the Imperials and The Miracles. The evening I went to see Little Anthony, the sound system blew out because of the heat. Undeterred, the Imperials did their whole set a cappella, clear as a bell.  A couple of weeks later I caught The Miracles. I had never seen them in person before. The choreography of their movements, their coordinated outfits, Smokey’s falsetto: no wonder all these groups came from church. They knew all about altering states of consciousness! “More love, more joy than any age of time could ever destroy.” “Everything’s gonna be alright”, they promised.

It was also in the summer of 1968 that I had my real first girl-friend – Rosie Nuccio. I can still remember flying down the Belt Parkway headed for Canarsie with the Dells blaring out of my radio: Stay in My Corner. But the song that pumped me up the most was Jackie Wilson’s Higher and Higher. Of course, seeing Jackie Wilson perform added immensely to my excitement because I could see him juking and jiving, doing his splits and falsettos. I’m amazed I never had a car accident when I visited Rosie because I paid so little attention to the other cars.

Baby Don’t Ya Do It (Don’t Break My Heart (Marvin Gaye) 1968

Nineteen sixty-nine was the rockiest but the most transformative year of all. Rosie broke up with me because I was butting into a fight she was having with her ex-boyfriend. I wisely stayed out of it for months, but then took some idiotic advice from a car mechanic I knew who told me I had to “put my foot down”. Rosie over-reacted and told me she was not down with having another jealous boyfriend. That was it. I couldn’t believe it.

I only went out with Rosie for about four months, but I really felt good with her. She was a big voluptuous gal, easy going, smart, and kind. I took it very hard when we broke up and it took me about a year to get over her. But this experience made me want to know much more about blues music, because that’s what I had – the blues. Besides the break-up, I had decided, against my parents’ wishes, to drop out of college. So, for the first time in 12 years, I wasn’t going back to school in the fall. Over the next year, I threw myself into working in music stores.

Music Extravaganza Music Store

Jamaica Avenue was five blocks from my house. I went down there to shop for clothes, shoes, and music.  On my way home one day, I noticed one of the shops had been taken over as a music store. Naturally I stopped in to see what was going on. The store was not far from Jamaica High School, which had a heavy Black population, so the shop largely reflected the tastes of the students. The guy who owned the shop was friendly, but he did not seem like the kind of guy who was interested in blasting Bold, Soul Sister into the street. I stopped by and talked to the guy about music a couple of times a week and he began to talk to me about the business. The store had good traffic, but I could tell he was not at home with having 10 to 15 high school kids pawing through his stock every day while pushing each other, screaming, and carrying on. He began to put out feelers to see if I might like to work there. Then one day I came in and he asked me if I would like to run the store for a week while he was away. At first, I was pretty scared, but over the next two days, we went over all my responsibilities and it seemed more manageable. Once he gave me his phone number to call in case something happened, I felt like I could do it. I really wanted a job in music.

I managed the store for a week and nothing bad happened. While I was in the store when times were slow, I started matching the labels to the artists. I knew all the rhythm and blues people and their labels, but I had to learn the labels of the British rockers like Cream, Led Zeppelin and The Who. One time my father was coming up the hill from work. I saw him and invited him into the store. There weren’t many people around, so he could size up the store without drawing attention to himself. He looked at me, uncomprehending. Here he thought I was going to college to be some kind of professional, but instead I dropped out of school and was working in a record store playing music he couldn’t stand and with people in the store he could not relate to. As it turned out, I worked at this store for six months full-time.

Visiting Rivoli Records

In the meantime, on the weekends I began to go into Manhattan, looking around for blues music. I had also started reading a couple of books about the history of the blues. In 1969, I was aware of the anti-war movement and the Black Panthers, and would travel to Greenwich Village, trying to plug into something, searching for mysteries without any clues, as Bob Seger would sing. Then I would take the E train four stops and get off at Times Square. I gravitated to the music stores, including Sam Goody’s.

One Saturday night I stumbled on a store on 47th and Broadway called Rivoli Records. Ray Barretto’s Latin music blared outside the store. I entered the store, trying to get the lay of the land. One guy up close to the register whom I came to know as “Big George” was holding court. He looked like Bluto except he had sunglasses on. I zeroed in on the blues section of the store and pulled out an album by Ten Years After. I walked up to George and said I’d like to buy this. I handed George the record cover. He takes the cigar out of his mouth, draws in saliva as if readying himself for an attack. “You don’t wanna listen to this shit. Lemme show ya some real blues.” He lumbers down the aisle and pulls out a record by Sonny Boy Williamson, jams it into my hands and says, “Now dat’s the Blues!” George seems to have very little interest in selling me the record. He just wants to play it for me. We listen to it, then he pulls out more records which we listen to in between customers. It was hard to judge George as a salesperson. When he liked a song, he would blare out “YEAHHH”, scaring half the customers out of the store, especially the tourists. George was great if you knew what you wanted, but he was not good at reeling people in if they were just browsing.

Our Saturday nights became a habit. We’d listen to music, order some take-out food and then about 1am he’d close the store. I would drive him home to the Bronx. It was the least I could do for the education I was getting. The more I came into the store the more I thought maybe I could work there. Rivoli Records was a sub-division of a larger store, named Colony Records. This was a shop that was so deep in stock people would come from other parts of the world to buy this music. In fact, in later years I read an article about Michael Jackson slipping into Colony Records when he was in town. He would give a secret knock to alert the staff he was there.

The 2 music labels like Atlantic, Bang Records, and ABC were all within walking distance of Rivoli.  In fact, many of the people who worked at Colony had their own small bands and were hoping to be discovered by the record companies. Some of the musical artists used to come by and give those of us working there tickets to the Apollo Theatre. My point is that all the people working at Colony and Rivoli were extremely knowledgeable about music. Besides Big George, there were two other people I came to know and eventually work with. Freddie was an older guy who had a comb-over and whose expertise was big bands. Freddie hated rhythm and blues and Latin jazz and his thin skin was easily irritated by Big George who liked to escalate. The other guy was Little George. Little George must have been about 5 foot five inches, a wiry, cynical Black guy who was in charge of the 45s and the rhythm and blues section. Little George worked during the day so if there was an opening for me, it would be the night shift from 6pm to 1am. At some point I asked Big George if I could work there. He said he had to talk to Turk, the owner of Colony Records. I was introduced to Turk and Turk said I needed to know the labels better. He told me to go work at a wholesale music store and to come back in 6 months.

Ernie Dooley, a longtime employee of Colony Records on 49th Street and Broadway

Working at a wholesale music store (Raymar Records)

I found a job picking orders at Raymar records which was only a couple of miles from where I lived. Our job at the store was to pick orders for music stores, and the orders would be delivered by a driver. Most of the guys in the store were hippies into rock and folk music. Not my cup of tea, but I did learn more record labels and I was turned on to FM radio which I never heard before. I continued to go to Rivoli Records every Saturday night.

I get hired by Rivoli Records (the best job interview I ever had)

Six months later I was back at Rivoli Records and told Turk I did what he asked. This time he said that hiring me was up to Little George because he was in charge of the 45s. I got along pretty well with Freddie and Little George when I would visit, but this was business. Did I have what it took to work with them? My moment of truth came in a way I least suspected. In front of Big George and Freddie, Little George said to me “who Laura Lee?” Now Laura Lee was no cross-over artist. She was on the Chess label with all their funky guitars, sour horns, organs and gospel singers. She did songs like “You a Dirty Man” with lyrics like “get outta my house and don’t never come back. You and that other woman are two of a kind”. Now unless I listened to Black stations regularly, I would never have heard of her. But I knew who she was. So I burst out singing “Wanted lover, no experience necessary, I will train him (gospel singers) sho’ will train him, boo-opp”. Little George looked at me, looked at Big George, never looked back at me but pointed at me with his thumb. “He hired”. Here is the full song that I sang.

Catching the Wicked Pickett at the Apollo

For the next six months I was in heaven. I worked full time and was thriven’ in the Broadway scene. From the prostitutes on 7th Avenue, to the drunks hanging out in front of the store, to the musicians who stopped by, to Lloyd Price’s nightclub a couple of blocks down. One time soon after I started working there, Little George told me Wilson Pickett had stopped by and dropped off a couple of tickets to see him at the Apollo. He said he couldn’t go, but asked me if I wanted to go. I sensed this was some kind of test. Little George wanted to see if I had the nerve to go to 125th Street and see the show even if I would be one of five white folks in the whole audience. But just as I had done at the Brooklyn Fox years ago, I mustered up my courage and went. Sure enough, on Monday night Little George says “well, did you go”? I never blinked and sang to him: “Ninety-nine and a half just won’t’ git it!” I showed him my receipt. He slipped me some skin.

Over the next six months I noticed that when things were slow Little George would practice his James Brown dancing moves. You know, where he glides across the floor but it looks like he’s standing still. I watched Little George and with some encouragement, I started to do it. But there were two problems. One problem was I didn’t have any dancing shoes on, so practiced in my socks. Secondly, the floor of the store was not uniformly smooth so I couldn’t practice these moves anywhere in the store. So, over the weekend, I went up to Florsheim Shoes up on the Bronx Grand Concourse. I always loved the Temptations’ white boots, and I really wanted a pair. I got carried away and bought some for one-hundred bucks (which would be about $600 today). When I went into work Monday night, I showed Little George my shoes. He smiled and shook his head. But that wasn’t the end of it. I brought a bag of corn meal to work with me. Corn meal makes the floor more slippery. So before Little George left, I cued up the Temptations song, “Ain’t Too Proud to Beg”. I showed him my moves, and the corn meal on the floor really worked.  What I didn’t tell Little George is that I had been practicing on the weekend so I was ready for him Monday night. Big George and even Freddie were smiling as I made my moves. He watched me, looked away and looked at Big George as if to signal what to do. Big George yelled out “YEAHHHHHHH”, and Little George smiled, never looked at me, and went home.

The best documentary that captures the Broadway scene in the late sixties is great piece of work on the life of the great musical producer Bert Berns. He is pictured with Solomon Burke in the image at the front of the article.

Conclusion: Music and Magick

When I look at social organization in Yankeedom, I see a crisis in legitimacy. Fewer and fewer people are joining churches or attending them. The approval rating of Congress has been less than 10% for some time now. In any given election for the past fifty years, 40% to 50% of the people don’t bother to vote at all.  Neither political nor religious authorities have any heroic qualities to offer us. So where do we go? To the field of entertainment: sports, movies and music.

Suppose Colin Kaepernick ran for President and Marshawn Lynch ran for Vice President, as members of the Green Party. I guarantee you that if the party played their cards right, the poor and working class would be mobilized. As for the movies, we have already had two actors who won governorship in California and they were terrible actors. It is no different with musicians. Suppose Ray Charles, James Brown or Smokey Robinson ran in a third party. These candidates would unite blacks across classes and across generations. What these celebrates have is what Weber called charisma. They appear to have the spirit (inspired) and when we listen to the ones we love, that spirit possesses us. But it is more than that.

In previous articles, I’ve defined “magick” (as distinct from stage magicians), close to the way Aleister Crowley did. “Magick is the art and science of changing consciousness at will”. What I would add is that it is also changed through:

  • The saturation of the six senses (including kinetics—dancing)
  • The use of imagination (getting lost in the story of the song)
  • Done in a collective context (groups in a concert)
  • A ritual structure (in which space, time and timing are orchestrated)

I promise you that any couple who is having a rough time in a relationship will have an altered state of consciousness and not be the same after they attended a Johnny Mathis concert. You sit at a table in a nightclub, and you listen to “Fly Me to the Moon”, “Chances Are”, “The Twelfth of Never”, “Wonderful, Wonderful”, “A Certain Smile”, “Misty”, and “Maria”. Ninety minutes later, you’re in an altered state. No therapy, no drugs. The rhythm and blues artists I mentioned had a similar hypnotic effect on me. Fifty-two years later, my music has been transformed from 45s and 33 1/3, to tapes and now CDs. But all my gods and goddesses are with me, and they still cast their spell on me just as Screamin Jay Hawkins once sang. They never get old and they never die. As Frankie Crocker once said “sock it to me, mama”.

• First published at Socialist Planning Beyond Capitalism

Bruce Lerro has taught for 25 years as an adjunct college professor of psychology at Golden Gate University, Dominican University and Diablo Valley College in the San Francisco Bay Area. He has applied a Vygotskian socio-historical perspective to his three books found on Amazon. Read other articles by Bruce, or visit Bruce's website.