The debate on when and who had been the first to rock ‘n’ roll goes on. Some are in favor of Saturday Night Fish Fry by the jump blues band Louis Jordan and the Tympani Five (1949), others look to Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys and what they accomplished with electric guitars, and how his fast beat country and western swing music gently morphed into rockabilly by a younger generation of musicians like Bill Haley and his country and western band the Saddlemen, Elvis Presley, and a host of others at Sun Records in Memphis, Tennessee. Ike Turner in 1951 took his music, along with Jackie Brenston on vocals, to record the song Rocket 88 at Sun Records in 1951. The song gained the top of the Rhythm and Blues charts in June; Rocket 88 was then recorded by Bill Haley and the Saddlemen in June for Holiday Records. It became a regional hit for the young Haley and his band; this local hit eventually sent Haley on his recording career abandoning country and western for rock and roll in the music industry.
Haley broke into the Billboard Magazines Top 100 In April of 1953 with his band, now called the Comets, recording Crazy Man, Crazy for Essex Records, a song written by Haley that reached #12 on the chart that summer, a tune that sounded a lot like something Louis Jordan would do.
In addition to these songs, by the end of 1951, a Cleveland disc jockey at WJM, Alan Freed, is playing rhythm and blues records from black performers on his midnight radio show, and renaming it rock ‘n’ roll. Tapes of his show are rebroadcast in New York, where he eventually gets a job as DJ in 1954 playing his R&B records. It was unusual to play Black performer’s recordings on radio stations that at the time were segregated between White audience markets and Black audience markets. White audience radio stations played Perry Como, Rosemary Clooney, or Doris Day. Sometimes a Black performer had a crossover hit, like Nat King Cole, or Duke Ellington, acceptable Black performers to White audiences. But in the 1940s and 1950s, for the most part, radio was segregated. Black radio stations generally played to their Black marketplace, and the White stations generally played to the White audience market. The music played was often very different. However, listeners were not similarly held to this segregation. Anyone could listen to the songs they played, White or Black. Some DJs played R&B on their White station’s shows whose marketing was aimed at teenagers; and, Black stations could be listened to as well by White audiences. A Spokane record collector, Jack Kendall told me that while his family was living in Indiana, his father would go out to the car to listen to the Black radio stations. He remembers seeing his dad bobbing his head to the beat, and smoking his cigarettes on warm summer evenings.
Record company producers, seeing a potentially huge market for their records with teenagers, were working to bring the two sides together, the potential exploitation of a the market, and the infectious, addicting beat of R & B. Elvis became that connection. His popularity rocketed beyond anything all the other performers, Haley, Turner, Richard Penniman, Jerry Lee Lewis, or Chuck Berry were trying to accomplish, in fact should have accomplished. But Elvis had the stage presence, the charisma. He had young Frank Sinatra’s appeal to teenage girls, he had popular hit records, he was highly promotable through his appearances in movies and on television. Rock ‘n’ roll was available long before Elvis came along, but it was Elvis that made it acceptable. He sold the rest of the world on it. He also opened the doors to the riches of the recording industry for the other rock ‘n’ roll performers. Good music or bad music, rock ‘n’ roll was now making people wealthy.
Like other performers in R & B—black performers who were popular on the smaller marketing footprint within the Black population areas surrounded by larger white populations, and in rural areas of the South—Elvis’ popularity was limited to certain areas of the the South based on which small market radio stations would play Sun’s 78 records of Elvis. In 1955, as Sun released his songs recorded with Scotty Moore and Bill Black, Elvis, with Moore and Black as his band, began to appear wherever they could get a gig.
The trio began performing at various clubs in Memphis. In August of 1954, they got one gig on the Grand Ole Opry show in Nashville, and eventually they headed out on the road for a stop in Atlanta, Georgia in October.
Elvis and his band got invited to perform on the Louisiana Hayride radio show in Shreveport, Louisiana, resulting in an invite to appear Saturday evenings on the Hayride show when they could get to town. After that they started playing gigs in Texas, with more stops at other venues in town, and stops in Memphis when they came home. Sun Records released another 78, Good Rockin’ Tonight and I Don’t Care If The Sun Don’t Shine on the flip side in September 1954.
In 1955 Moore, Black and Elvis made 249 appearances, all around the South at places like Eagles Hall in Houston, the Catholic Club in Helena Arkansas, Mayfair Building Fairgrounds in Tyler Texas, American Legion Hall in Carlsbad, New Mexico, The Cotton Club in Lubbock, Texas, West Monroe High School in West Monroe, Louisiana, the Popular Bluff Armory in Popular Bluff, Missouri. The trio motored to gigs in Florida, North Carolina, Virginia, Alabama, Oklahoma, but did not get very far north other than a couple of stops in Cleveland, Ohio. Elvis and his band were a Southern phenomena at this point. But, he had gathered in the interest of some big wheels, like Col. Tom Parker, and musicians from Nashville, as well as young musicians like Buddy Holly, who opened for Elvis at a pair of gigs in Lubbock, Texas during 1955.
The band early on was asked to appear a couple of Saturday nights of each month on the radio show Louisiana Hayride where the house drummer. D.J. Fontana sat in with them. Fontana’s playing added a R & B backbeat to Elvis’s music.
Presley, through Sun Records, released six more songs: Milkcow Blues Boogie, You’re a Heartbreaker, Baby Let’s Play House, I’m Left, You’re Right, She’s Gone, Mystery Train, and I Forgot To Remember To Forget.
Early on in their career as a trio, Presley, Moore and Black played the Silver Slipper in Atlanta, Georgia the evening of October 8, 1954. Their records were for sale in the city’s record shops, and juke boxes carried their records.
Bobby Wayne Snyder, known in the country music and rockabilly circles as Bobby Wayne, was born in Spokane, Washington in 1936. His parents were Paul and Virginia Snyder. His father had some musical background, and Bobby started learning his way around the piano. While still a youngster, Wayne with his parents moved to California into a cramped mobile home. No room for a piano. The young Bobby switched to the guitar to keep up with his music. Sometime before 1952 the Snyders returned to Spokane. The now teenage Bobby got a job with the Western Union company delivering telegrams. He formed a friendship with a fellow delivery boy, Neil Livingstone, who also was interested in music, especially country and western music, and the steel guitar. The next year, 1953, and all of sixteen years old, Wayne formed his first band, the Rocky Mountain Playboys. Bobby played rhythm guitar, while his buddy Red Adair played lead, and Bob Thames plucked out the standup bass. They snagged a weekly gig at the Woodland Beach Club at Hauser Lake up the valley from Coeur d’Alene, Idaho. In May the band felt together enough to book some time at Paul and Irene Carter’s Sound Recording Company (SRC) in the Symons Building, downtown Spokane, to record a couple of songs. They recorded Rocky Mountain Home, and There’s No Room In Your Heart.
The Rocky Mountain Playboys continued to play six days a week at the Jitterbug Club in Osborn, Idaho. While there Wayne meet Doug Dugger of the band T Texas Tyler and they rounded up a month long gig at the Moose Club in Missoula, Montana. Then the band brought in Jack Ackers for vocals, and Jack Evans, a fiddler. In the summer of 1954 the band scratched together enough money to travel to Los Angeles to find their break into the music industry, but because of restrictive age limits for musicians in bars where they needed to earn a living while in LA, the band went broke, and returned to Spokane a short time later. Soon afterwards the band split apart for good.
Wayne then hooked up with his old buddy Livingstone, who by this time had learned to play the steel guitar, and Livingstone’s younger brother Ron on fiddle With Thames on bass, Jack Curry on piano, they formed a new band, The String Dusters, and the band played local grange hall gigs through the winter of 1954-1955, as well as appearing live on a weekly local radio show.
Meanwhile, Wayne’s parent’s marriage had fallen apart and they divorced. His mother, Virginia, remarried and moved to Atlanta, Georgia. In the summer of 1955 she asked him to move down to Georgia to be with her. Arriving by Greyhound bus midday and hungry, his mother took him to lunch. It was while they were waiting for their meal that Virginia put a nickel in the restaurant’s juke box and played the song Mystery Train by Elvis Presley. While listening to Scotty Moore on guitar, Wayne immediately converted to rockabilly. He began buying up all of the 78’s Elvis released, and listened to any other R & B he could find. He had packed his guitar, and now practiced all day and into the night obtaining his rockabilly chops. He started hiring himself out for gigs meeting other musicians then in Atlanta playing the nightclubs. He met Roy Drusky, Jerry Reed, and Pete Drake. He paired up with Drake for gigs. But then his mother, another marriage on the rocks, headed back to Spokane taking young Wayne with her.
Wayne brought with him to Spokane his Elvis 78s, and all the other records he could find playing rock ‘n’ roll. He was so taken by the music he scrounged up a band and earned enough money to book more recording time at SRC. He hooked up with rhythm guitar player Harold Horn, and drummer Warren Waters to cut two sides, Warpaint, and a song about a high school girl he meet in Atlanta, Sally Ann. Wayne payed out of his own pocket to press 250 copies of the songs as a 78 rpm disc in December of 1955 hoping they would sell like hotcakes and he would get a recording contract with a national record company.
To be continued . . .
Bobby Wayne Snyder died February 26, 2013 in Spokane, Washington after a year-long struggle with illness.
Interview with Jack Kendall, 29 June, 2013, Spokane, Washington.
Interview with Ron Livingstone, 5 May, 2013, Spokane, Washington.
Fontenot, Robert. Elvis Presley Concerts: 1954 Concerts and other on-stage appearances by Elvis in 1954. About.com Guide.
－ Elvis Presley Discography: 1954 A historical Elvis Presley timeline of single, EP, and album releases. About.com Guide.
－ Elvis Presley Concerts: 1955 Concerts and other on-stage appearances by Elvis in 1955. About.com Guide.
－ Elvis Presley Discography: 1955 A historical Elvis Presley timeline of single, EP, and album releases. About.com Guide.
Wilkinson, Tony. “BOBBY WAYNE .“ Black Cat Rockabilly Web site.
Snyder, Robert Wayne. “Bobby Wayne.” Rockabilly Hall of Fame Presentation.
Copyright © 2013 Robert G. Schoenberg