Motley crews

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

40th_modernlovers_
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.

1  |  2  |  3  |  4  |  5  |  6  |   next >
  Topics: Music Features , Elvis Presley, Entertainment, Frank Zappa,  More more >
| More


Most Popular
ARTICLES BY BRETT MILANO
Share this entry with Delicious
  •   REVIEW: DON'T STOP BELIEVIN': EVERYMAN'S JOURNEY  |  March 04, 2013
    There's no sex or drugs, just a lot of professionalism.
  •   WALTER SICKERT LEADS A BAND OF MUSICAL MISFITS  |  February 05, 2011
    When Walter Sickert and his Army of Broken Toys played an official First Night show at the Hynes Auditorium on New Year's Eve, they ran overtime and the soundman pulled the plug — which isn't quite the smartest way of shutting down an acoustic band.
  •   GUIDED BY VOICES RETURN WITH SELF-INFLICTED NOSTALGIA  |  November 07, 2010
    When Guided by Voices announced their reunion tour this year, it marked a milestone of sorts for the Dayton band. This is arguably the first conventional career move they've ever made.
  •   DANDO AND HATFIELD REKINDLE A MUSICAL COURTSHIP  |  November 01, 2010
    Evan Dando and Juliana Hatfield were never a serious couple, and they never played music together for very long.
  •   REVIEW: ROCK OF AGES  |  October 12, 2010
    At the start of the hair-metal musical Rock of Ages (at the Colonial Theatre through October 17), narrator Lonny (Patrick Lewallen) promises a night of sexy decadence and general kick-assery.

 See all articles by: BRETT MILANO