I grew up during the 50’s in a small Southern town in North Carolina where they rolled up the sidewalks promptly at 7:00 p.m. There was only one hang out open until 10 p.m. and then nothing. After Gene’s Drive-in closed, five or six of us would pile into one car, pony up money for gas and stop by the corner ESSO station. Usually the night attendant was one of us, a kid hired to work overnight, to fill up the occasional semi that rolled through the center of town along Highway 70. Usually we got out of the car and with much grab-assing bought chips and Moon Pies. Even at that late hour we were a gas station attendant’s nightmare, a solid line from a Chuck Berry tune. “Wipe the window, check the oil, check the tires, a dollar gas.” But in those days at 16 or 17 cents a gallon, “a dollar gas” would take you on a long ride into the wee hours of the morning. Loaded up again, amid cries of “Shotgun” and “Radio,” we would make the run to the local bootleg establishment, a place called The Old Dutch Mill, where we bought quart bottles of Colt 45 Malt Liquor which they handed out to us through the night window. Usually someone working inside would recognize me. “Aren’t you Gadget’s boy,” they would say. “Yeah,” I answered. “You boys be careful. Low and Slow.” they would say. Whoever was driving would drop the car into low gear and gun it; burning rubber we squalled out into the night.
Summer nights it mattered who rode shotgun, you could roll the window down, shoot the wing vents and get the full benefit of the morning cool. It didn’t matter who claimed radio. We tuned automatically to WLAC and we cruised the empty streets until the dawn sucking down the strong malt liquor and listening to records spun by John R, Gene Nobles and Hoss Allen. They played “race” music, music performed by Neee…gro blues men who had followed the river north from the Mississippi Delta and were now cutting sides for a new label out of the south side of Chicago called Chess records. Although somewhat dimmed by time, I can still recall the patter.
“This is Gene Nobles coming to you from WLAC in Nashville, Tennesee and brought to you by Randy’s Record Shop in Gallatin, that’s G A double-L A T I N, Gallatin Tennesee where you can buy the records we play and also brought to you by White Rose Petroleum Jelly.
And he would hit the White Rose Petroleum Jelly jingle:
Whether you’re a filly, a husband or a wife, you use White Rose and everything’s all right.
And brought to you by Silky Straight hair pomade. Silky straight when you want to look AB SO LUTELY fine.
And then he would spin the records. The radio would moan with Howling Wolf, Muddy Waters, Bo Diddley, Chuck Berry and Memphis Slim and Etta James. Little Walter’s harp screamed in the background and Muddy Waters’s guitar rolled through the night.
That radio station, WLAC from Nashville, was a 50 thousand Watt clear channel power house that blanketed all of the central United States. And as much as I revere Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King and those who made and led the Civil Rights Movement, I am not sure it would have occurred without WLAC and John R and Muddy Waters and Howling Wolf and Chuck Berry and Etta James and the host of performers who followed them into the hearts and minds of impressionable young folks all over the country.
It was in those wee hours of the morning, just a wee bit tipsy, that a lot of us began for the first time to hear, the voice of the “other America” and began to appreciate that there was something terribly rotten in the state of Denmark. When the civil rights movement began, it was simply a no-brainer. The music gave the lie to segregation. It was time to do something about that lie.
Some years ago I was working on a project for C-Span and number of us gathered in Washington, D.C. for work sessions. C-Span hosted a reception for us and at one point Brian Lamb who is the head of that organization began to draw a small crowd around him and it was clear from the fragments of conversation that floated over that they weren’t talking about the D Toqueville project. What they were talking about was WLAC. A number of us drifted over into that small knot. As teenagers, all of us had found the station. All of us had listened rapturously to John R and the music. It was a common experience, an experience that our parents would not have wished for us, an experience beyond the closed boundaries of segregated America, an experience of freedom embedded deep in our psyches. It was an epiphany to learn that we had all been connected by the radio waves streaming from the WLAC tower in Nashville.
With all that as an introduction, I will confess that I could not view the film, Cadillac Records, with any kind of objectivity. There are some films that just get you where you live. Cadillac Records is such a film. The film tells an abbreviated story of Leonard Chess and the group of blues and rock artists that gathered around the small studio in Chicago, the players who were the bedrock of rock and roll. The impact those artists and that label had on a generation of young people growing up in the towns and cities in America is incalculable.
I know there has been a movie about every super star in American music, but this one is different. This is about the beginning of rock and roll. In an earlier posting I promised not to tell you to go see movies. I renege on that promise. If you don’t know the artists and the music go see the movie. If you do, don’t miss it.