Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Author Chris Kennedy Talks About the Book 1950s Radio in Color

Chris Kennedy, author of 1950s Radio In Color, was nice enough to answer some questions about his book.  Fans of 1950s rock and roll are going to want this one-- but for me its significance is that there's a photograph from Chuck Berry's August 1955 performance at Gleason's Pub-- his first big gig after cutting Maybellene, one he remembers fondly in outtakes from Hail! Hail! Rock 'n' Roll (primarily for the $850 he earned that week) and in his Autobiography.

Who was Tommy Edwards, and how did he fit into rock and roll history? 
Tommy Edwards was a popular deejay at WERE-AM in Cleveland, Ohio from 1951-59. Tommy was an early champion of Elvis Presley and his music, and played a key role in furthering his career. In 1954, Edwards began playing Blue Moon of Kentucky on his Hillbilly Jamboree radio show. In early 1955, Tommy booked Elvis for his first appearance north of the Mason Dixon line at the Circle Theater in Cleveland. In 1955, he began taking color photographs of all the artists who came by the radio studios. The discovery of these nearly 1,800 candid and beautiful photos, along with the discovery of the entire collection of the T.E. Newsletter, Edwards's weekly, two-page recap for industry insiders, gives Tommy the recognition as the deejay responsible for perhaps the most important photographic and written documentation of twentieth-century popular music ever produced.

How did you learn about the pictures that he took? 
Being an Elvis fan for practically all my life, I was aware that Tommy was the photographer who snapped the iconic October 20, 1955 shot of Bill Haley and Elvis Presley shaking hands, backstage at the filming of The Pied Piper of Cleveland show, at Brooklyn High School, in Brooklyn, Ohio. The Pied Piper of Cleveland was a movie short, financed by Cleveland deejay Bill Randle, and is rumored to be Elvis's first film appearance. The film is the lost Holy Grail of rock and roll, and remains missing. In 2006, I tracked down Tommy's nephew, who held on to a few of his uncle's slides. A few weeks later, he called to say he found nearly 1,800 more, stashed under a work bench. He had simply forgotten he had them.  
What was it like seeing them for the first time?  You must have known you'd discovered gold. 
It was an exhilarating experience, an emotional one as well, since I'm a fan of rock and roll and knew how important and rare these photographs were. Tommy was in essence a documentary photographer with a great eye, capturing our musical heroes as never before seen. Candid, raw and in amazing Ektachrome color.
Are there pictures that didn't make it into the book?  Pictures of Chuck, for example? 
The book features over 200 photographs, so over 1,000 photos didn't make the book. There was only that one shot of Chuck, but it's one of the most amazing ever taken of him, on so many levels, in my opinion. I chose the 200+ photos that are in the book using my own criteria. How important historically the subject was, if they subject was still alive and I was able to interview them, or simply if I thought the photo was beautiful.  
I haven't actually seen the book-- do you give background information about the photographs?  
Each photograph is accompanied by text describing what record or film the artist was promoting at that particular time Tommy snapped the picture. I used this approach to put the reader right into the moment, to give a fly on the wall perspective, have them emotionally involved. Using Tommy's newsletters, I was able to date, sometimes to the day, when the photos were taken. Also included are quotes from Tommy Edwards from his newsletters as well as the artist's own words, if I interviewed them. 
What's the story behind the pictures of Berry?  It looks like he's already playing with a pickup band just a month after Maybellene was released.  That surprised me. 
The picture was taken August 15-21, 1955 at Gleason's Musical Bar in Cleveland. Tommy had been hearing about Berry, so he went downtown to check him out, camera in tow. It was a pick-up band, and I was able to interview the deceased saxophonist's family, who recalled him speaking about the show and the great time he and the other guys had. Not only is the photo just a gorgeous shot, dripping with that Ekatchrome color, but it gives us a rarely seen Chuck Berry, raw and incomplete, before his star ascended.  

You're a musician yourself?  Tell us about that. 
I was the lead singer, bassist and songwriter for the rock band Ruth Ruth. We've released albums on Epitaph, RCA and a bunch more labels. Here's the Wikipedia link, for anyone who's interested: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ruth_Ruth
Where can people get the book? 

Meanwhile, I was still thinking.  

So here's Ruth Ruth:

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