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Did you ever notice that most classical music is really old?

I know there are modern composers out there that fit the term but if you were to ask the average person to tell you who comes to mind when they think of “classical music” they’d throw out names like, Mozart, Bach and Beethoven all of whom have been dead for quite a few years. The first two didn’t even make it into the 1800’s and we’re rapidly approaching the two hundredth anniversary of Ludwig van Beethoven’s death, and he was the baby of the three, not kicking the bucket until 1827!

Now the fact that they’re still recognizable names today is a tribute to their enduring reputations but it hardly bodes well for the genre as a whole when you’re still drawing the majority of recognition for the music made by people who nobody on this planet ever personally encountered. In fact it’s getting more remote by the day that somebody still around today once knew somebody who knew Beethoven personally 192 years ago, although I suppose it’s still theoretically possible.

Needless to say in part because of this classical music has a bit of a problem when it comes to reaching today’s listeners.

Even the more “modern” classical composers whose names we still know are hardly recent. Tchaikovsky died in 1893 and one of his most enduring works was The 1812 Overture… nothing like a timely theme to keep the kids of 2019 interested, huh? The likes of Chopin, Schubert and Mendlessohn didn’t make it to 1850, which is ten years before the Civil War even began, while Brahms, Strauss and Wagner fell just short of seeing the Twentieth Century.

For those who like their musical heroes young however we always can point to Giuseppie Verdi who was still drawing shrieks of adulation from the hordes of classical music groupies as recently as… 1901 when he took his final bow at the age of 87.

What this says about classical music isn’t a critique on the music itself – after all, each of those names wrote pieces that are still being performed and enjoyed by some in the Twenty-First Century – but rather it serves as a warning to all styles of music that in order to ensure your ongoing relevancy you need to constantly have newer, younger blood coming along to replace the older guard.

So it is in rock ‘n’ roll as well.

As we inch ever closer to the 1950’s in our look back its history it’s only natural that some of the artists we’re meeting for the first time as of late will go on to become key figures in rock’s rise to universal recognition in the decade to come and who’d help to guarantee that the music wasn’t going to remained tied to its late 1940’s origins forever.


An Age Old Question
Now to be fair and put this in the proper perspective let me point out that what we think of as “classical music” dates back to at least 1750 and the first usage of the term was found in 1829 (see how the chroniclers of music are always lagging slightly behind when it comes to properly naming it… by contrast we saw rock ‘n’ roll being specifically referred to in 1949 in ads and in more generalized terms right from the start in 1947 even though most still point to some guy named Freed “naming” it in 1952 or so, although even that later date would be a much quicker turnaround than the classical movement… but I digress).

So anyway, if we say that classical music began in the mid-18th century and sort of waned by the early to mid-20th century when the last really recognizable names like Dubussy, Sibelius, Bartók, Ravel, Prokofiev, Stravinsky and Copeland came along, we can safely say that ANY musical genre which enjoyed a two hundred year run is doing alright.

So what’s the point of all this? Are we saying that classical music was still going strong UNTIL rock knocked it off its perch and thus if it weren’t for Roy Brown, Wynonie Harris, Big Jay McNeely, The Ravens and Amos Milburn coming along when they did we’d be making teenage pilgrimages to the latest symphony in white tie and tails rather than an outdoor concert chugging beers?

No, probably not. But the reason isn’t because something else would’ve come along to end classical music’s reign, it’s because classical music had been struggling to replace its top tier composers for more than half a century already. Its popularity had already crested before we ever entered The Twentieth Century and it simply took another fifty years for the final embers of its broad appeal to die out.

Since this isn’t a classical music history blog we won’t spend too much more time on it, but you can point to a lot of different reasons that factored into its gradual downfall of course, much of it technological – from the advent of electronic reproduction of music which led to home phonographs (which ironically featured mostly classical music on its discs at the outset showing that it was still highly regarded until that point) and the popularization of radio which followed, and the rapid improvements in microphones and sound amplification, all of which made other forms of music more accessible.

Socially speaking the American melting pot ideal (still more a myth than a reality but at least slightly improving by this point) allowed for marginalized communities, primarily black musicians via jazz, blues, gospel and now rock, and rural whites with folk and country, to have their music heard on a wider basis and because it naturally connected with a broader array of listeners who felt more aligned culturally with these forms of music than with European ideals dating back centuries, these newer “cruder” forms began to take precedence.

But while all of those reasons were huge factors there was another reason that classical wasn’t able to at least remain on par with these newer styles emerging in the 1900-1950 period and that was because after more than a hundred years of being seen as the pinnacle of musical ambition for each generation that came along it began to fail to cultivate enough young ambitious and talented composers to re-imagine classical music in order to connect with a modern audience.

But hey, don’t feel bad classical music fans, at least you’ll always have Beethoven!

An Introduction To Classic Rock
Bringing this back to the topic at hand, which is rock ‘n’ roll, let’s start by telling you that The Rhythm-Riffers were teenagers in 1949, which shows why this up and coming music was in good hands for appealing to the post-War kids coming of age at the same time. It’s not our first time meeting most of these guys though, as we’ve already been introduced to the core of the group under different circumstances. One of the members is pianist Richard Lewis, who as Dick Lewis was Imperial Records’s first attempt at scoring with a rock artist at the very dawn of the music, and more recently we’ve heard the saxophones of Marvin Phillips and Emory Perry behind The Great Gates on a few records including a national hit, Late After Hours.

We said at the start that it was only a matter of time before we ran into more artists who would help take rock ‘n’ roll to the next level when it crossed over into so-called “mainstream” America in the mid-1950’s and here you have some names who were part of that movement.

Now none of them was ever a star. Lewis remained more of a behind the scenes figure the rest of his career, playing piano behind other Los Angeles based acts in the 1950’s and occasionally singing but never getting as much recognition as those he was loosely associated with. Phillips on the other hand did get some legit national hits of his own, or rather with partners, first with Jesse Belvin and later with this same Emory Perry who joined Phillips as the “Johnny” half of the vocal duo Marvin & Johnny who had some big sellers the mid-1950’s.

The point though isn’t their specific roles in helping to take rock music to another stage of its evolution, but rather the fact that there were more coming along to do so and maybe more importantly that they were young kids with an eye on the future, not the past.

The two Lewis records we covered came right at rock’s outset back in late 1947 and were decent piano based boogies but he’d cut them just before Roy Brown released the offical “first rock record” and so when Lewis’s sides got put out and fit into the same basic motif he was thrown onto the genre’s roster without much thought. At the same time he’d cut those records however he had also done stuff that was much more pop sounding and sides that were distinctly jazzy as well. In fact one of the last of those sides to get released by Imperial came earlier this year, in the winter of 1949, and we gave fleeting thought to including Shuffle Boogie before deciding that with its cymbal riding, trumpet braying, cocktail piano feel it’d be stretching the rock boundaries much too far to justify.

In other words, back when all of those were recorded in the summer of 1947 Imperial Records was merely casting about for anything that might have some appeal to black listeners and it’s telling that their points of reference they used when coming up with ideas were about to be totally upended which is why those “cast a wide net” attempts mostly fell flat.

But now that rock has solidified its position and established its core audience which has proven to be much bigger and more reliable than anticipated, the benefits of letting younger artists pursue their own muse is becoming obvious and so it’s with that in mind that Selective Records handed the keys over to this group of kids and let them craft Fandango any way they see fit.

Rock Me Amadeus!
You may have been wondering why we’d waste half of a review about a rock ‘n’ roll record talking about classical music other than after two and half years of this we’ve run out of ideas.

Nope, sorry to disappoint you but one listen to this instrumental and you’ll see how it all fits into the larger theme here.

In 1958 a doo wop group called The Eternals will hit big with a song called Little Star which was loosely adapted from a song Mozart arranged long ago called Twinkle Twinkle Little Star. We won’t spoil that future review too much by saying it was pretty well done, but we WILL say that they weren’t the first rock group to incorporate Mozart or that song specifically, because here on Fandango Richard Lewis’s piano intro is lifted directly from that same source.

In older hands this could come off as calculating but done by teenagers it’s entirely understandable. Of course they’re going to think of something like that, if only to show they’re clever. It’s not very hard to play – I’m sure most of you reading could pick it out on a piano pretty quickly even without ever having played before – and he’s not embellishing it any or even playing it particularly well. He sounds as if he’s just screwing around, which he probably was at first, but they liked how it kicked things off and kept it in the arrangement.

What follows however is not only more appropriate for rock ‘n’ roll but also much better performed than that brief prelude to the main event. While Lewis hammers away very effectively in the background on the keyboards the primary focus wisely shifts to the saxophones early on giving this a rolling groove for listeners to latch onto.

There’s no timidity to Phillips’ playing, no allusions to jazz sophistication (or classical snobbery for that matter), this is down in the gutter from the start, a hip-shaking ass-grinding riff that works to perfection. Its tone, its pacing, its emphasis on the rhythm all shows where their heads were at and it wasn’t the play it safe older school models of the recent past, it was the dive in and sink or swim attitude of kids who know what THEY want to hear and those like them want to hear.

Tomorrow’s Classical Music
Though there’s nothing radical about the song itself as written, nor any extraordinary playing (Phillips and Perry were both capable musicians but hardly virtuosos like their future cohort Big Jay McNeely), there’s also nothing to really pick apart about any of this. The arrangement is simple but highly effective, letting each one of them get a spot to shine, for after the first sax solo comes a piano interlude where Lewis struts his stuff with a stuttering boogie that keeps the energy high and the groove intact.

A second sax solo ramps things up further highlighted by a brief drum roll transition and while the rest of the playing just takes things to the finish line, maybe letting the melodic components slip ever so slightly but when the other horn jumps back in and the drums cap off each refrain with some clattering exclamation points you aren’t really complaining that you can’t whistle along to it like it was… well, like it was a Beethoven sonata.

If you want to fault Fandango for anything it might be that the title itself is a little misleading, as this doesn’t sound like a Spanish dance and there’s no castanets or guitar present which are the primary instruments of the music when spelled with a lower case “f”. But while 9th grade Spanish students might quibble with what they called it, they won’t have any hesitation about playing it after school or at parties that weekend and that’s what really matters.

As for what matters in the big picture of rock ‘n’ roll’s progression from the first decade into the next isn’t that this record failed to become a hit and was really not much more than a side project for the participants – as they remained working steadily behind The Great Gates until 1951 – but rather that it showed once again that the future of rock was in good hands as the next generation were already picking up the mantle and eager to take their place on the stage as the Fifties dawned.

As long as that attitude is present in each and every ensuing generation then rock just might outlast classical music yet.


(Visit the Artist page of The Rhythm-Riffers for the complete archive of their records reviewed to date)