R.I.P. Ed Ward, the curmudgeonly Austin-based rock historian who wrote so eloquently for Rolling Stone, NPR and the Austin-American Statesman.
Here’s my 2016 review in The Dallas Morning News of Ed’s excellent “The History of Rock & Roll, Volume 1” :
Austin-based writer Ed Ward soft-pedals his mission in the title of The History of Rock & Roll, Volume 1: 1920-1963. He’s really undertaken the story American popular music as a whole, from medicine shows to the birth of country music to the Greenwich Village folk scene that spawned rock’s greatest songwriter, Bob Dylan.
Rock ’n’ roll may be the focus, but this is the tale of where rock came from and why.
Ward tackles this imposing topic with the same cerebral but conversational style he uses on NPR’s Fresh Air, where he’s been resident rock historian since 1986.
Like his radio segments, the book excels at balancing the essential with the arcane. We get the amusing R-rated story of Little Richard’s landmark single “Tutti Frutti,” but we also find out about Esquerita, the obscure gender-bending rocker who inspired Richard.
And while we hear all about the life and tragic death of Lubbock’s Buddy Holly, we also learn tons of Texas trivia about the Big D Jamboree, Roy Orbison’s little-known roots in Denton, and the Crystal Springs Dance Pavilion, the long-gone Fort Worth hall where Western swing king Bob Wills held court. Ward – a one-time staff writer for the Austin American-Statesman and Austin Chronicle – clearly knows his Texana just as well he knows all things Memphis and New Orleans.
Some of his stories last just a few sentences, while others go on for pages, like his fascinating segments on Chuck Berry and Elvis Presley, the “eccentric country artist” who gradually morphed into a whole new beast. A few mundane side trips notwithstanding, Ward’s vivid anecdotes make the book more fun to read than 98 percent of tomes with “history” in their title.
As good as he is at describing the music, the author is even better at discussing the music business and all the flimflam men who tried to get rich from it. He gives intriguing accounts of the shellac shortages that hampered the record biz, payola scams that scandalized it, and the rise of regional record-label owners who played a pivotal role in rock’s development – not just Sam Phillips in Memphis and the Chess brothers in Chicago, but lesser-known pioneers like Cincinnati’s Syd Nathan, the King Records kingpin who absolutely hated some of the classic singles James Brown recorded for him.
Ward isn’t too snooty to delve into the sillier side of the record biz, from its novelty records and dance crazes to the trashy movies that tried to cash in on rock’s popularity (including the 1956 Dallas cult classic Rock, Baby, Rock It!). He also delights in writing about the battle between rock ‘n’ roll and so-called “good music,” exemplified by North Texas State College student Pat Boone, “a clean-cut, well-spoken young man who might have been some mad scientist’s attempt at an anti-Elvis,” Ward writes.
He details prudes a-plenty who tried to rid society of the sexual pestilence known as rock ’n’ roll, including a consortium of R&B disc jockeys who issued this proclamation: “The club is not against blues records as such, but it is against a record in which ‘rock,’ ‘roll,’ or ‘ride’ doesn’t deal with the rhythm and meter of the tune.”
Volume 1 winds down with a lengthy look at the Beatles, starting from their early days with the awful name Japage 3 (short for “John and Paul and George”) and leading up to the brink of Beatlemania. As the music biz sharks lie in wait to see if the mop tops can uncover a goldmine, the reader is left eagerly awaiting the arrival of Ward’s The History of Rock & Roll: Volume 2.
Thor Christensen is a Dallas writer and critic. Email him at email@example.com.
The History of Rock & Roll, Volume 1: 1920-1963