Today, there is almost always a stylistic gap between most artists who conquer charts as million sellers and the blues makers you read about in American Blues Scene. There are few of us left alive who remember when Elvis Presley first jumped that gap in 1953 when he walked into Sun Records Studio in Memphis to record a song for his mother’s birthday present. Sun Studios owner Sam Phillips was looking for a white artist who sounded black and heard that quality in Elvis.
At the same time Sam was recording country and western music, and when he brought Presley back into the studio, he created a hybrid sound that appealed to two disparate cultures. The 2017 RCA release Elvis Presley A Boy From Tupelo The Complete 1953 -1955 Recordings documents the genesis of the sound that would go on to inspire 70 years of the music that today is generally regarded as America’s gift to world culture.
Call it blues. Call it rock and roll. On this two-CD set you can witness every take, every stop and start from those early sessions that produced songs that include “Blue Moon,” “Mystery Train,” “Good Rockin’ Tonight” and “That’s All Right,” the Arthur Big Boy Crudup delta blues nugget that permanently cemented the evolution of blues into rock and roll.
On Sunday, January 6th, an eight-piece killer band led by 73-year-old Johnny Rabb will take the stage at The Hangar on the Hudson in Troy, New York to celebrate Elvis’ 89th birthday. Johnny was seven years old when he first heard Elvis on records his older brother bought. Johnny has been paying homage to The King of Rock and Roll every year since 1980. The band will perform “Good Rockin’ Tonight” from those early Sun Sessions. They will also tackle “Do The Clam” from Presley’s 1965 film “Girl Happy.” Other hits and album cuts scheduled are “Little Sister,” “Just Because,” “Little Egypt,” “Promised Land,” “Viva Las Vegas,” and “Suspicious Minds.”
Not only is Elvis ubiquitous in American pop culture 47 years after his passing, but his prodigious volume of work is documented 24 hours a day on his own Sirius/XM channel. He’s the only artist that everyone in my family loves like a brother, and his influence can be heard across genres of music ranging from gospel and Americana to hard rock and country ballads.
“I just knew I liked it right away,” says Johnny Rabb. “I had three older brothers and my oldest brother Lynn was the record guy in the family. He bought the records, and he was an Elvis fan. He bought the albums and the 45s and all that stuff. So, that was like my first introduction. I think I heard the Sun stuff first. We had the first gold album with “Don’t Be Cruel,” All Shook Up,” all that stuff. Then he kept buying the next album that came out.”
I was 12 when I first heard Elvis. My friend Richard Ross grabbed me by the collar, took me into his bedroom and played “Heartbreak Hotel” on his portable 45 RPM record player. Living in upstate New York, I had never heard blues. My musical knowledge was limited to “How Much Is That Doggie in the Window” and “Tennessee Waltz.”
This young man from Tupelo, Mississippi took the James Dean mythos to a whole new level and touched emotions in me I didn’t know existed. He took me down to the end of a lonely street: “Although it’s always crowded/You still can find some room/For broken-hearted lovers/To cry there in their gloom.” To that point in time, when anyone asked me what my favorite song was, I’d say “The Syncopated Clock.” The idea that I’d spend more than half a century of my life documenting the lives of blues artists and rock and rollers was not even a hint.
Elvis was always the cornerstone to my growing musical obsession. He was the early bridge to other top 40 acts like Little Richard and Fats Domino. When he returned from the Army. I was getting ready to ship out to Vietnam. I watched his comeback special and knew I was going to be alright. If Elvis could do a stint in green and come back in leathers singing “All Shook Up,” I could survive in hell. When he did the Live special in the ’70s seen around the world, I was glued to the screen. And the morning I turned on the TV and saw the gates of Graceland on the morning news and realized he was gone, my heart sank.
I will be at Johnny Rabb’s Elvis Birthday Bash bathed in a life of memories that define who I am. Johnny Rabb has enjoyed a career almost as colorful as Elvis. He has been ubiquitous on the New York Capital Region scene since his first band The Sound Tracks in 1966. He formed The Jailhouse Rockers in 1975 and toured and recorded with The Neanderthals beginning in 1994.
The Neanderthals toured with The Trashmen who had a mid-60s hit with “Surfer Bird.”
“It was a perfect union. We were this ridiculous garage band with big outfits on, and we rocked the shit out of it. It was like being in the circus, and then The Trashmen would come on and we would play together. (The Trashmen played) garage rock, surfin’ garage rock It’s more like the attitude of stuff – like The Ventures but the Trashmen had vocals.”
Like Elvis, the band playing Saturday night is no novelty act. Like Rabb, every member of the band has a rich decades-old legacy of performances both locally and internationally. They include former Commander Cody and The Lost Planet Airmen guitarist John Tichy and his son Graham also on guitars, sax master Luke McNamme, Josh Greenberg on horns, keyboardist Mike Kelly, Stephen Clyde on bass, and drummer Chris Sprague.