Motley crews

A short history of Boston rock
By BRETT MILANO  |  November 15, 2006

YOU HEARD IT HERE FIRST: Jonathan Richman and the Modern Lovers.

The history of Boston rock and roll begins with these immortal words: “Ding! Dong! Ding ding dong! Ka-ding dong, ding dong ding!”

As in many other cities, rock in Boston started in the church. But this wasn’t one of the Baptist churches where Elvis or Little Richard learned their licks. This was St. Richard’s in Roxbury, an integrated Catholic church that had an interracial choir — not as rare in 1956 as it might be in later decades. From here came the four brothers and one friend who formed the G-Clefs, Boston’s first real rock group. That church was a stone’s throw from John Eliot Square, site of America’s first Puritan settlement. So Boston rock was born in the shadow of the city’s Puritan heritage, and in some respects it’s been kicking against that heritage ever since.

“Ka-Ding-Dong” was a slice of pure teenage adrenalin, with echoed drums, cowbell, and a hyperactive guitar solo. It scored #24 on the national charts in 1956, high enough to get the G-Clefs a spot at New York’s Apollo Theater, not to mention package tours with Little Richard and Chuck Berry. Although Boston isn’t as strongly associated with street-corner doo-wop as New York is, we did make a contribution: another Roxbury group, the Sophomores, went national with “Cool Cool Baby”; and Revere’s Tune Weavers had a major hit with “Happy, Happy Birthday Baby.” With a melting lead vocal by the late Margo Sylvia, it’s a teary slow dance about crashing your ex’s birthday celebration — high-school masochism at its finest.

This first wave of Boston rock was distinguished by its elegant, church-bred harmonies. But a wilder sound was lurking just around the bend. Another Revere native, Freddy Cannon, brought it home with frantic hits that included “Palisades Park,” “Tallahassee Lassie,” and “Transistor Sister.” Along with a manic sound, Cannon developed a vocal trademark: the more “whooo’s!” that he stuck into a record, the better a song it was going to be. According to rock historian Cub Koda, those “whooo’s!” were the idea of his producers Bob Crewe and Frank Slay, who needed a way to fill in the holes on one of his first records — but if it works, it works. Cannon became a fixture on Dick Clark’s American Bandstand, and his songs get covered to this day — the Ramones even did “Palisades Park.” That song, by the way, was the one hit to be written by Chuck Barris, later the creator of The Gong Show.

If you lived in Boston during the early ‘60s, you’d hear that song and all the other chart hits played by Arnie “Woo Woo” Ginsburg, Boston’s favorite ’60s disc jockey. Armed with hooters, slide whistles, and any other sound effects he could find, Woo Woo did his nightly show from the WMEX-AM studio on Brookline Avenue, near Fenway Park, sometimes pulling kids off the street to help sing commercials. On a Friday night you could attend his weekly record hops at the Surf Ballroom in Nantasket, where you could put on a fancy jacket, hear a hot local band like the Rockin’ Ramrods, and live it up till your parents brought you home. Ginsburg also played a lot of national hits before anyone else. One day he got hold of a little number called “Louie Louie” by the Kingsmen, decided it was one of the worst things he’d heard in his life, and spun it on his show as a joke. The song got so many requests that it was number one on his show the following week.

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