By Todd Baptista
For 25 years, fans and critics have lobbied, celebrated and lamented the nomination and induction — or lack thereof — of many worthy and deserving artists into The Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame. Like everyone else, I have questioned some, applauded others and been frustrated by what many of us believe has become a political process controlled by an elite few — the 1 percent.
While I have read each and every letter published within these pages over the past quarter-century on the subject, I have never weighed in on the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame myself. Why not? Perhaps I have seen it as an exercise in futility. In any event, the recent online poll at the Goldmine website, which offered readers a chance to vote for their own choices, got me wanting to offer my own perspective.
It is not my intent to speak out against any previous nominee or inductee. While I personally may know very little about, say Leonard Cohen, there are others who scratched their heads when The Orioles were honored by the Rock Hall. Were The Orioles deserving? You bet, and those who have studied the impact of the pioneering artists of the ’40s and early ’50s would unanimously concur. My point here: Are there enough qualified individuals in power who are surveying the music of rock ’n’ roll’s earliest generation? Remember The Sex Pistols’ scathing 2006 letter to the Hall regarding the band’s enshrinement? “You’re anonymous as judges, but you’re still music industry people. We’re not coming.”
One of the factions with the loudest organized voice has been the send “Neil Sedaka to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame” group. Checking out that online petition, more than 13,200 individuals have added their name to the cause — including me. The Brooklyn-born Sedaka began studying classical piano as a child and was writing and recording by his mid-teens. In total, Sedaka scored 30 Hot 100 entries and nine charted albums between 1958 and 1980, including nine Top 10 discs and the No. 1 hits, “Breaking Up Is Hard To Do” and “Bad Blood,” which came more than a decade apart.
Back in the days when “Calendar Girl,” “Oh! Carol,” “Happy Birthday, Sweet Sixteen,” and “Next Door To An Angel” were blasting from transistor radios, Sedaka and his music were fixtures on American Bandstand and the multitude of rock ’n’ roll package tours that crisscrossed the United States. When — and who — decided that “I Go Ape,” “Little Devil” and “Amarillo” were pop — and to the degree that they should no longer classified as rock ’n’ roll? Personally, I don’t see it.
If Alan Freed were alive today, I have no doubt he’d be ashamed that the Hall of Fame has yet to recognize the contribution of The Clovers. While Atlantic Records has frequently been dubbed “The House That Ruth Built,” referring to Miss Rhythm, Ruth Brown, who enjoyed 24 R&B chart hits from 1949-1960, accolades for the label’s early success could similarly be heaped upon Clyde McPhatter and The Drifters, LaVern Baker and Big Joe Turner — all of whom have been enshrined. Formed in Washington, D.C., in 1946, The Clovers (John “Buddy” Bailey, Matthew McQuater, Harold Lucas, Harold Winley, Billy Mitchell and guitarist Bill Harris) equaled or surpassed the success of their label mates. Between 1951 and 1956, when records by black artists were often restricted in terms of airplay and chart success, The Clovers reeled off 20 R&B hits, including 13 straight Top 10s. Their first two hits, “Don’t You Know I Love You” and “Fool, Fool, Fool” both claimed the top spot, and were followed to No. 1 by “Ting-A-Ling” in 1952. The group’s tight harmony, showcased behind the blues-tinged leads of Bailey and later Mitchell, turned “One Mint Julep,” “Hey Miss Fannie,” “Good Lovin’,” and “Your Cash Ain’t Nothin’ But Trash” into national bestsellers. All told, the group’s efforts spent 219 weeks on the R&B charts in the 1950s.
Music critic Bruce Elder has written that, “with the exception of Roy Orbison and Elvis Presley, no white rock and roller of the time ever developed a finer voice with a better range than Jack Scott, or cut a more convincing body of work in rockabilly, rock and roll, country-soul, gospel, country-pop or blues.” Now, I might add Jerry Lee Lewis to that category, as well, but why haven’t we seen Jack’s name among the list of nominees? Hall of Fame President Terry Stewart — who is not on the nominating committee — has told me on more than one occasion that he believes Jack deserves to be enshrined, and I couldn’t agree more.
In the pre-British Invasion era, the singer-songwriter waxed 19 Hot 100 hits, including the Top 5 classics “My True Love,” “What In The World’s Come Over You” and “Burning Bridges.” With the exception of that last tune, Jack wrote all of his biggest hits. Many have spotlighted “The Way I Walk” as a classic rock ’n’ roll anthem. He’s gotten the royal treatment from Germany’s Bear Family Records, played the Grand Ole Opry, and, in response to his “I Remember Hank Williams” album, was invited to visit the home of the singer’s widow, Audrey. Heck, he even played ol’ Hank’s guitar, which hung above the mantel. He’s been inducted into the Michigan Rock ’N’ Roll Legends Hall of Fame, The Rockabilly Hall of Fame and The Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame. He’s been called the greatest Canadian rock and roller of all time, and has lived in the United States since age 10. It’s time he’s given his place in Cleveland.
There are certainly artists who have been honored, not in response to their chart success, but for the influence they have had on a wide range of artists. Take, for instance, the mighty Bo Diddley. Bo only earned one pop Top 40 hit (the insult-trading novelty “Say Man” in 1959) to go along with three Top 10 R&B hits, including his eponymous, trendsetting No. 1 debut record — yet there was no one else like him.
Similarly, The Five Keys — despite having fewer hits than their contemporaries, the previously honored Moonglows and Flamingos — were among the greatest and most influential of the early 1950s vocal groups. The Five Keys’ 1951 debut, “The Glory of Love,” topped R&B lists for four weeks, and there’s no doubting the staying power and influence of “Out Of Sight, Out Of Mind,” “The Verdict” and “Close Your Eyes.” They sang high-caliber R&B, pop, blues and rock ’n’ roll with equal prowess, and leads Rudy West and Maryland Pierce, octave tenor Ripley Ingram, bass Bernie West and second tenor-baritones Dickie Smith and Ramon Loper possessed exquisite gifts for lead and harmony singing. Sadly, Rudy died before the PBS doo-wop concert era began. Today, it’s up to us, as scholars, historians and fans, to sustain The Five Keys’ legacy.
While some consider Connie Francis a controversial figure in the Rock Hall discussion, I don’t. Like her friend and contemporary, Neil Sedaka, Connie’s records were played by rock ’n’ roll disc jockeys, including Alan Freed. She appeared on the numerous package shows alongside Clyde McPhatter, Lloyd Price, The Big Bopper, Chuck Berry and others, and she was an “American Bandstand” regular. Her 56 charted singles make her the No. 1 female vocalist of the late ’50s and early ’60s. While many of her recordings cross over into country and western, international and pure pop, her rock ’n’ roll roots, her ability to introduce teenage record buyers to various musical idioms and the criteria the Hall has followed through the years makes her exclusion a glaring omission.
The sideman category, now known as the Award for Recording Excellence, always piques my curiosity. I’m thrilled to see artists including Sam “The Man” Taylor, Lee Allen, Panama Francis, Herb Hardesty and Huey “Piano” Smith among those being discussed, and I believe that all deserve inclusion. Let’s add another name to the list: West Coast bandleader-songwriter-arranger Maxwell Davis.
Born in Independence, Kan., Thomas Maxwell Davis (1916-1970) was playing tenor sax professionally before his 18th birthday. He moved to Los Angeles to join Fletcher Henderson’s orchestra in 1937. In the 1940s and early 1950s, Davis arranged and played on hundreds of sides for dozens of labels. The hits of Charles Brown, Amos Milburn, Jimmy Witherspoon, Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown, Jesse Belvin, The Jacks/Cadets, T-Bone Walker, Percy Mayfield, B.B. King, Z.Z. Hill and Louis Jordan, among others, all benefited from Davis’ involvement. His defining role in the success of the Aladdin and, later, Modern/RPM/Crown/Kent catalogs, has earned him the title “Father of West Coast R&B.” Davis’ contributions paralleled that of Willie Dixon at Chess/Checker and Jesse Stone at Atlantic.
“Maxwell Davis is an unsung hero of early rhythm and blues,” Hall of Fame songwriter-producer Mike Stoller explains. “He produced, in effect, all of the record sessions for all the local independent rhythm and blues companies in the early 1950s, late 1940s, in Los Angeles.”
In his autobiography, “Blues All Around Me,” B.B. King effused: “Maxwell could read my soul and interpret my sound. Even though he had the better musical mind, he let me lead. I’d bring songs and arrangement ideas to (him and he’d) write the charts that let Lucille soar. He always left room for Lucille, understanding so well how she and I worked together. He’s the man responsible for my best work. He had experience, and his musical education gave him wide flexibility in the studio. The man could write, think and adapt. He also blew a mean tenor sax. He was the only arranger who could put on record 95 percent of everything I was hearing in my head. Maxwell was a loving teacher.”
I know, I know, tell an advertising man he’s got to sell TV spots during the Rock Hall broadcast when The Five Keys, Maxwell Davis or Jack Scott are being honored. In 2001, a former nominations board member told Fox News that “at one point (former Hall of Fame Foundation director) Suzan Evans lamented the choices being made because there weren’t enough big names that would sell tickets to the dinner. That was quickly remedied by dropping one of the doo-wop groups being considered in favor of a ‘name’ artist... I saw how certain pioneering artists of the ’50s and early ’60s were shunned because there needed to be more name power on the list, resulting in ’70s superstars getting in before the people who made it possible for them. Some of those pioneers still aren’t in today. I was finally kicked off the committee after writing a guest editorial for Billboard in which I criticized the Hall for its insider ways.”
To borrow from a movement that’s all the rage, unless the 99 percent hit those in power where it counts — read “pocketbook” — it’s unlikely that our pioneers will stand a palm tree’s chance in Cleveland of Rock Hall enshrinement.