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'I wasn't no teen idol!' says Freddy 'Boom Boom' Cannon

From karate with The King to getting served at Sinatra’s, Cannon explains why he’s no teen idol — even though he holds a record for ‘American Bandstand’ appearances and wrote a song with his mom.

By Mike Greenblatt

That perennial teenager, Freddy “Boom Boom” Cannon, singer of such songs as “Tallahassee Lassie” and “Palisades Park,” the man who never sang a ballad in his life, and who’s still rockin’ the stage at 73, has finally written his memoirs in the form of “Where The Action Is! (Publish America).”

(Discover the 10 Records That Changed Freddy 'Boom Boom' Cannon's life.)

Co-authored by Mark Bego, with an introduction by Dick Clark, the book is a quick, fun read filled with dozens of great stories about the life and times of Frederico Anthony Picariello.

Freddy Cannon publicity image

Freddy Cannon wasn't fond of being called a teen idol, and he wasn't a fan of record hops, either, he says. Photo courtesy Freddy Cannon.

GM: Who were your main inspirations starting out in 1959?
Freddy Cannon: When I heard Big Joe Turner’s “Shake Rattle And Roll” in 1954, I knew that was a sound that was going to happen. I figured if I ever made it, I’d be doing dance music, ’cause my records were rockin’. Then when I saw Chuck Berry do “Maybelline” in concert in 1956, that put the stamp right on it. Without Chuck, there’d be no rock ’n’ roll. He had the crowd eating out of his hand.

GM: How was it performing for those Alan Freed package shows?
FC: A madhouse! You’d do two songs and leave the stage. Before you know it, it was time for another show. He’d do five or six shows a day! Those shows at the Paramount Theater in Brooklyn, you never had a chance to rest. There was no time to do anything. There was one band that backed up everybody and just stayed on the stage all day and all night. They never left. The curtain would close. They’d stay. It was crazy. But I learned a lot. It was rock ’n’ roll school. That’s where I learned how to rock a crowd. Plus, I made sure to watch the other acts on the bill: Bo Diddley, Little Anthony & The Imperials, Jackie Wilson, Fats Domino ... oh, so many I can’t even remember.

GM: Your book goes to great lengths to rebel against the teen idol box they put you in.
FC: Right! I wasn’t no teen idol! I was a rock ’n’ roll act. I didn’t belong with Frankie Avalon, Bobby Rydell, Bobby Vee or Fabian. Those acts were soft and cute and pretty. They didn’t rock the crowd. The black acts really rocked the crowd, and I watched them from the side of the stage every night. Jimmy Clanton, though, was one white teen-idol type who could rock the crowd, I remember.

Where the Action Is by Freddy Boom Boom Cannon

GM: You hold the record for the most “American Bandstand” appearances.
FC: The first time I did the show, I had “Tallahassee Lassie” out, and Dick Clark made it the dance contest song. He played the song three times. I was scared. In fact, I was a nervous wreck. I didn’t know what to expect. I get out to Philadelphia, sign some papers in an office, and I’m told to stand behind the curtain and wait. I didn’t know what was in front of the curtain. They pulled it open, and the kids were right in my face. The studio was so small! It made me even more nervous! Now I have to pretend to sing the song, moving my lips to the record — lip-synching, they called it. The producer told me not to just move my lips but to sing with the record. Sing along with it! If you just move your lips, it looks phony. So that’s what I did. I was belting it out. Of course, nobody heard it; they just heard the record.

GM: You write in the book how Dick Clark didn’t want to play the Beatles’ “She Loves You.”
FC: He didn’t think it would be that big.

GM: How’d you feel when you first heard that the Rolling Stones recorded “Tallahassee Lassie”?
FC: Oh man, it was crazy! My mom and I wrote that song! I have a new song called “Covered By The Rolling Stones” which I’m trying to get a label to put out. I feel it could be on the charts today. I have some family and friends who tell me they think the Stones didn’t do a very good job on my song, but I don’t agree. They rocked it like crazy. I loved it.

Freddy Cannon Tallahassee Lassie on Swan

GM: One of the most powerful stories you tell is how on April 17, 1960, you could’ve been in the same car crash that killed rockabilly legend Eddie Cochran.
FC: That’s true. We were finishing up a tour in London and preparing to go back to the airport to go home. Eddie got in the taxi and had the front desk call to see if I was ready. But I was with my dad, and we were running late. Gene Vincent was also on the bill. Eddie was a wonderful guy. He was so nice. My dad got real close to him. Gene might have been the headliner, but for the last 10 days, they had Eddie close the show, because the girls were going so crazy for him. He stole the show. He was just that good. I remember Gene didn’t like the switch, but it was obvious who was carrying the show. So Eddie and my dad would sit and drink at the bar every night. I never drank, but I’d sit with them for a while and go up to my room. He’d sit there with Eddie almost all night. Then, the next day we’d start all over again. Well, that particular day, someone asked us if we were ready to go, because Eddie was waiting for us downstairs with a taxi. But my father told him to go on ahead, and we’d meet him there. We were still packing. We get downstairs after Eddie took off, and halfway to the airport in our taxi, we hear on the radio that Eddie Cochran had crashed and he’s dead. We were shocked. We couldn’t even look at each other. It was ridiculous. What a feeling. I’ll never forget it.

GM: On tours in the deep South in the early 1960s, you witnessed first hand the degradation black artists had to suffer.
FC: It just wasn’t right. The white people would be sitting at the hotel restaurants, and some of the great rock ’n’ rollers of all-time weren’t allowed to eat in the same rooms. It was awful. I felt so bad. I used to run in and buy hamburgers for ’em so they could at least eat on the bus: I’m talkin’ The Shirelles, The Coasters, The Drifters, Bobby Blue Bland, some really great artists. We’d check in the hotel, and they’d have to go to another hotel. Stupid, that’s what it was. We all got along. We were all friends. I looked up to these artists. I couldn’t understand all the craziness.

Freddy Cannon and Wolfman Jack

Freddy Cannon has gotten to know a lot of people through his years as a musician, including the late, great Wolfman Jack. Photo courtesy Freddy Cannon.

GM: Tell the Sinatra story.
FC: Right here in Hollywood, he owned an Italian restaurant. Me and the boys are sitting, waiting to be served. I had a big hit on the charts at the time. Flew in from Philly. Big entourage. I had the distributor, promotion guys, record label, about 10 of us. The place was empty. Well, here comes Sinatra with his best friend, Jilly Rizzo. They sit down and get served immediately. Here I have a hit record, and I can’t even get a glass of water! Bernie Bennett of Swan Records says to me, “Freddy, be quiet. Don’t say anything.” But I’m there, talkin’ real loud about not getting served. “He can hear you,” Bernie’s warning me. Sure enough, Sinatra hears me complaining and says, ‘Someone get that kid over here.’ I was young, maybe a little foolhardy. I walked over to Sinatra’s table. He looks up from his pasta and asks, ‘What’s wrong?’ I said, ‘Mr. Sinatra, we’re not getting any service here. We’ve been here over a half an hour. My song is in the Top 10 and …’ He turns his head, keeps eating and says, ‘Kid, I’ll take of everything.’ He snaps his fingers, and we got everything right away.

GM: I found the concept of Record Hops totally fascinating.
FC: I hated ’em. But you had to do it. The disc jockey in charge of the record hop was usually from the local radio station. They’d average from 1,000 to 2,000 kids in a high school gymnasium. They couldn’t afford to bring in a live band to back up the singers like me, so you had to stand there and lip-synch while the DJ played your record. Half the time, it would skip or get stuck in the middle of the song.

GM: And how about when you met up with Elvis Presley and he used you as a punching bag to show off his karate moves to his boys?
FC: He almost killed me. It was The Peabody Hotel in Memphis (Tenn.). He wanted to impress his friends with his karate … on me! Of all people! He flipped me over, and I landed on my back. I swear, he almost broke my back. I grabbed his pants, though, and ripped his pants. He had on a pair of really expensive suede pants. I still have that fabric somewhere in the house that I ripped right off him. It’s probably worth something!