Little Richard, Keep a-Knockin'.
Johnny Cash, Big River.
Rick Nelson, Stood Up.
The Diamonds, Little Darlin'.
The Gladiolas, Little Darlin'.
A winter afternoon in Hibbing, Minnesota, in the late 1950s. A pair of teenage boys are messing around with a tape recorder.
Robert Zimmerman, aka Bob Dylan, age approx. 17: This is Little Richard (1)...(fakes wild crowd noises into microphone)...Little Richard's got a lot of expression.
John Bucklen, his best friend: You think singing is just jumping around and screaming?
Dylan: You gotta have some kind of expression.
Bucklen: Johnny Cash (2) has got expression.
Dylan: There's no expression. (Sings in boring, slow and monotone voice) "I met her at a dance in St. Paul, Minnesota... I walk the line, because you're mine, because you're mine..."
(time passes; tape resumes)
Bucklen: What's the best kind of music?
Dylan: Rhythm and Blues.
Bucklen: State your reason in no less than twenty-five minutes.
Dylan: Ah, Rhythm and Blues, you see, is something that you really can't quite explain, see. When you hear a Rhythm and Blues song - when you hear it's a good Rhythm and Blues song, chills go up your spine...
Dylan: When you hear a song like that. But when you hear a song like Johnny Cash, whadaya wanna do? You wanna leave, you wanna, you - when you hear a song like some good Rhythm and Blues song, you wanna cry when you hear one of those songs.
(another caesura; tape resumes)
Dylan: Yeah, ah, Ricky Nelson (3). Now Ricky Nelson's another one of these guys. See Ricky Nelson, Ricky Nelson -
Bucklen, prototype rock snob: Ricky Nelson is out of the question.
Dylan: Well he copies Elvis Presley! Yeaah, it's perfectly...
Bucklen: He can't do like Elvis Presley.
Dylan: Well he can't sing at all, Ricky Nelson. So we may as well forget him. See I mean - I mean, ya know, when you hear music like The Diamonds (4). For instance The Diamonds are really cool, they're out on the street, really popular, you know. So they're popular big stars but where, where do they get all the songs? You know they get all their songs, they get all their songs from little groups. They copy all the little groups (5). Same thing with Elvis Presley. Elvis Presley, who did he copy? He copied Clyde McPhatter, he copied Little Richard...
Bucklen: Wait a minute, wait a minute!
Dylan:..he copied the Drifters...
Bucklen: Wait a minute, name, name, name four songs that Elvis Presley's copied from those, from those little groups.
Dylan: He copied all the Richard songs -
Bucklen: Like what?
Dylan: "Rip It Up", "Long Tall Sally", "Ready Teddy", err ... what's the other one...
Bucklen: "Money Honey"?
Dylan: No, "Money Honey" he copied from Clyde McPhatter. He copied "I Was The One " - he copied that from the Coasters. He copied, ahhh, "I Got A Woman" from Ray Charles.
Bucklen: Er, listen that song was written for him.
(1) Little Richard's "Keep a Knockin'," in which rock & roll goes to its outer limits, was released in August 1957 as Specialty 611. Led Zeppelin nicked the drum intro for their "Rock and Roll"; every other rock band in history has wished they could make something this wild. Lee Allen, Alvin Tyler (saxes) and Earl Palmer (drums) are among the geniuses on this track. A few months after recording it, Richard quit show business and enrolled in a Bible college in Alabama. On The Georgia Peach.
(2) Johnny Cash's "Big River" was one of his last Sun recordings, taped on November 12, 1957, and released a month later as Sun 283, c/w "Ballad of a Teenage Queen." Teenage Dylan may not have thought much of Cash, but a decade later, he was recording covers of "Big River" with the Band and appearing as a guest on a Cash TV special. And the line from "Big River" that Dylan is mocking--"St Pawwl, Minnesota"--sounds like, as David Cantwell noted, the template for Dylan's later phrasing. On The Sun Years.
(3) "Stood Up," which transformed Ricky Nelson from a teen idol to a credible rocker, was recorded on November 18, 1957, and released a month later as Imperial 5483. This session was the first time Nelson worked with the guitarist James Burton, who Nelson had heard rehearsing at Imperial's offices. Nelson desperately wanted Burton, and so he had his father Ozzie "make Burton an offer he couldn't refuse: a retainer, permananent membership in Rick Nelson's house band and national exposure on the Ozzie & Harriet Show" (James Ritz). On Greatest Hits.
(4) The Diamonds' "Little Darlin'" was major pop hit in early '57, sitting at #2 on the charts for almost two months. The Diamonds were a Canadian/Californian quartet that, like a number of white vocal groups, got hits by covering contemporary R&B songs, almost immediately after the original was released. Their version of "Little Darlin'," for example, was rushed out weeks after the Gladiolas' original. It's a doo-wop classic that is also a doo-wop parody, in which the lead singer seems to be using a cod-Italian accent at times, the backup singers shriek and whine, there's some Will Ferrell-esque cowbell playing and, the coup de grace, an utterly ridiculous spoken verse, intoned like an announcer introducing "As the World Turns". That said, it remains a junk masterpiece "as unmistakably exciting as it is insincere" (Dave Marsh). Released as Mercury 71060. On Best Of.
(5) And here is the original 'little group" version: "Little Darlin'" was released in January 1957 by The Gladiolas as Excello 2101. The original is about as ridiculous as the Diamonds' cover version; it was an attempt by Excello head Ernie Young to cash in on a waning calypso fad. Written and lead vocals by Maurice Williams. Young told him not to mind that the Diamonds had made a bigger hit out of "Little Darlin'", as the real money was in the publishing. Of course, Young owned the publishing. On Excello Story Vol. 3.
The Dylan/Bucklen conversation was transcribed by Olof Björner; it's available, along with a few songs, on bootlegs like I Was So Much Younger Then.
24 Hours of Short Films
For those of you blessed with Turner Classic Movies, don't miss, this Friday (9/15), this awesome marathon:
Chaplin. Keaton (represented by some truly left-field choices). Hitchcock. Negulesco. Kubrick (some crazily rare shorts from the early '50s). George Stevens. Truffaut. Tourneur. "La Jetee"!! Lynch. Scorsese. Don Siegel. Polanski. Ridley and Tony Scott. Basically, the history of 20th Century film, in short doses.