Monthly Archives: May 2020

The sincerest form of flattery… a bonus tale

“Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery that mediocrity can pay to greatness” – Oscar Wilde.

Hi all, FYI I held off writing this bonus episode till early in the week. While this tale reveals an injustice which happened all too often in the postwar music business, there are elements to this bonus tale I don’t have my head around as much as I would like. For one I don’t feel the most comfortable around the position of written music in the era in question – oh by the way we’re talking about covers today. Written music still made up a sizeable percentage of music sales in the 1940s and 50s. The songwriters often wrote in the hope that multiple artists would pick up their work, and release their own arrangements of it… much more so than a songwriter today, who will often write with a particular artist in mind. In 2020 songs are usually associated with a single artist, and it has been that way for decades. Songs often weren’t in the 40s and 50s. It only seems fair I state this up front.


The other element I feel uncomfortable working around is how, exactly you designate one song a tribute (i.e. Elvis records Lonnie Johnson’s Tomorrow Night), another a rip off (i.e. The Diamonds cover of Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers Why Do Fools Fall in Love). I think it is fair to say some covers are better than others. Elvis, for example, covered a lot of songs – and on most of them he brought something new to the table. There was also an authenticity to the work of the King, and a respect for the original artist. I don’t know his work well enough to say for certain he never released a cover within weeks of the original artist – tracks like his cover of The Drifters Such a Night came seven years after the original. Even his cover of Carl Perkins’ Blue Suede Shoes came six months after Perkins version. There just seems something very different with releasing a note for note copy within weeks of the original, with the express purpose of stealing its thunder.

Give me Scottish witch trials, Chicago mobsters or Victorian era conmen I feel pretty confident – but this topic takes me a little out of my wheel house is all I’m saying. But now I have said that….


Our tale starts today in Los Angeles, California in late 1948. Albert Patrick, a record executive at a small rhythm and blues label called Supreme Records, bought the rights to produce a song called A Little Bird Told Me. The writer an acclaimed songwriter and arranger named Harvey Brooks. They soon went about producing a catchy ear worm with an R&B piano, handclaps on the backbeat, and the vocal talents of Paula Watson – an African American R&B vocalist and piano player newly arrived from Mobile, Alabama. The song, at first, proved a wise investment – it shot up to the top of what was then called the ‘race music’ charts (now the R&B charts). What proved especially pleasing no doubt would have been A Little Bird Told Me also entered the far bigger, and largely white pop music charts. The song was an exceedingly rare case of a black artist on a small, black owned label having a hit song in the white channels – well exceedingly rare until around 1956 in any case. The song rose through the charts till it hit number 14… then it died away just as dramatically.

The song’s trajectory was stalled because Decca records, a large label mostly making safe pop records – largely white music for a largely white audience- had been paying attention. They quickly realized if they made a sound-alike version – copied the formula, the jaunty R&B piano, hand claps, the backing vocals – and put an attractive young white woman out front – they would have a huge hit on their hands. They may not capture the fire of the original; the singer may not be as good as Ms Watson – but they had the bigger label, far more connections, and a society more willing to buy music from the white artist. Evelyn Knight’s cover, released within weeks of Paula Watson’s went to #1 with a bullet, staying on the charts for 21 weeks. It killed the momentum of the original.


Supreme records took out a lawsuit against Decca. While they could not claim copyright of the song, they felt comfortable they could claim rights to the arrangement of the song. When the case went to trial in 1950 the courts sided with Decca – you cannot copyright an arrangement. This was bad news for Supreme records, who were broke at the time, and soon after shut their doors. It was not the worst of news for Paula Watson, who had, in the interlude signed up with Decca herself – but it was awful news for a number of early rock and roll groups and singers, who may have broken bigger, and sooner – had some judge not set a precedent which allowed major labels to relegate their work to the trash heap with their inferior, but far more privileged cover versions. The examples are numerous, but let’s discuss a few.

The Chords ‘Sh-Boom’ is an often cited example, not least of all because the early Doo Wop song was on track to become the first rock and roll song to hit #1 on the pop charts. Sh-Boom (some of you may know it as ‘Life Could Be a Dream’, but Sh-Boom is it’s real name) was written by the members of the black, Bronx based group themselves – and released in 1954. It shot up both the R&B and pop charts – until the Canadian pop group The Crew-Cuts cut an insipid, watered down version of the song. With all their advantages, their cover killed the Chords original just as it hit #9 in the charts. Their cover went to #1, and stayed in the pop charts for 20 weeks. Despite being, by far, the better version – the Chords version would miss out on sync opportunities in movies and television until the 1990s.

The Crew-Cuts were one of a number of white acts preying on black artists. They would go on to make inferior versions of The Penguins ‘Earth Angel’ (mentioned in last week’s bonus episode), and Gene and Eunice’s Ko Ko Mo (I just wish I had the time to talk about this song, dozens of artists covered this song, including Rosemary Clooney’s sister and the actor Andy Griffiths – it was HUGE – it is now forgotten). Of course Pat Boone was another serial offender; ripping off songs by Fats Domino, the Flamingos, Ivory Joe Hunter, Big Joe Turner… and most famously Little Richard.
And then of course, there was the LaVern Baker v Georgia Gibbs feud.

LaVern Baker was a popular R&B and early rock and roll singer from a family of blues and gospel singers. She had come to national prominence in 1953 with the torch song Soul on Fire, released on Atlantic records. Her first big hit, however, would be Tweedle Dee, an up-tempo piece with a Latin feel to it. The song is dumb, but Baker’s performance elevates the track to something truly listenable. Tweedle Dee crossed over to the pop charts, reaching #14, to be knocked off the charts by white former big band singer Georgia Gibbs note for note cover of the song. Gibbs version, released by the then much larger label Mercury records, shot to the top of the charts. To add insult to injury Gibbs had hired the same arranger and musicians Baker had used for her version. She had tried to hire her audio engineer, Tom Dowd also, but he demurred. Baker was furious at the gall of Gibbs, more over the lost opportunities – more the airplay and lost exposure, than the lost sales (which she estimated at $15,000 in 1955 dollars). She went all out to ensure no rip-off artist ever did that again.


First, Baker carried out a publicity stunt meant to embarrass Gibbs. After booking a long distance flight, Baker took out a life insurance policy for the journey. Who was listed as the beneficiary on the policy? Georgia Gibbs of course – If the plane went down and LaVern Baker died, Baker let all in sundry know, Gibbs’ career would die a horrible death too. Second, she approached Michigan congressman Charles Diggs Jr, asking congress to look to pass a law banning note for note copies of other peoples’ records. All indications are congress looked into the issue, but decided it was out of their purview to do anything about it. What she did do however, in publicly embarrassing Gibbs and rallying congressmen to the cause, was to make it suddenly very uncool to just steal another artists act like that. Gibbs would go on to record one more dodgy knock off cover – this time Etta James’ answer record The Wallflower (retitled Dance with me Henry) before swearing off stealing R&B artists music. She kept her word for two years. Lavern Baker had another single, Tra La La, which was flying up the charts – so Gibbs copied it note for note. Her version bombed. The listeners were buying Baker’s disc for the B side, a great rock and roll song called Jim Dandy – today’s attached song.

I’ll do another one of these Tales of Rock and Roll next week – probably the final of these for a little while. IF the Batavia series doesn’t capture the imagination as I hoped it would I’ll have a look at running another short Thursday series… Please love Batavia though, you have no idea how many hours I spent on it. See you all next Tuesday for the final episode of Tom Horn. – Simone.

Podcast Episode 10: Tom Horn – Gunslinger (part 2)

Hi all welcome to Tales of History and Imagination, on today’s episode we’re continuing the tale of Tom Horn – This is part two of a three parter so if you haven’t read part one yet, you might want to check it out here first. In part one I discussed how Tom had grown up a loner in a strictly religious family, in Scotland county, Missouri. How following the loss of his faithful dog Shedrick, and a terrible beating from his father, 14 year old Tom struck out west – taking up several jobs to make ends meet. He increasingly found himself employed as a man of violence; becoming involved in the Apache Wars, railroad wars, one of America’s bloodiest family feuds, as a lawman, then – and this brings us up to date – as an enforcer for the Beef Barons of Wyoming. Though ostensibly his role was to protect their interests from cattle rustlers, in reality his role would be much more complex.

We discussed the kind of guy Tom Horn was. While he excelled under pressure, and became notable for several brave acts, he was also a braggart and, at times a bold- faced liar. Also worth reiterating from part one – while a capable gunfighter, Horn became known as an expert sharpshooter, what we would now call a sniper. Sharpshooters were rare, but occasionally known at the time – the best known known victim of a sharpshooter just prior to Horn’s era was Union General John Sedgwick; killed in the American Civil War after stating to his men “They couldn’t hit an elephant at this distance”.

Tom Horn had killed dozens of men by sharpshooting, but his time was the end of an era. Times were a changing, the west began to tame. Welcome to Tales of History and Imagination Episode 10, Tom Horn – Gunslinger, Part Two.


(theme music)


We left off last episode as Tom Horn had just left the Pinkerton detective agency in 1894. He soon found himself in Wyoming, officially working for the Swan Land and Cattle company as a ranch hand. Unofficially, he was there as an enforcer – hired muscle for when asking nicely wouldn’t do. To explain why the group we now refer to as the Beef Barons needed hired thugs, we need to delve back to the 1860s, first via a war with the neighbours.

To put a little context in explaining why the west was so wild, and less developed than the east coast at this time, it is worth pointing out places like Wyoming were still new to the USA. The United States seized the west coast of the country, by conquest, off the Mexicans in the Mexican – American war (1846- 48). Prior to Mexican rule, the west coast was conquered – their peoples almost annihilated – by the Spanish Conquistadors following the fall of the Aztec Empire in 1521. The West was then part of what was called New Spain. Prior to that the west was ruled by various indigenous tribes.


A few things happened during, and in the wake of the American Civil War (1861-65) which would bring two new groups in to this region. The first that from 1866 cattle farming became extremely popular in these states – starting in Texas, then up to regions like Wyoming. The model of much of this farming was to grab a big piece of land, but to take your cattle out onto a common area- the range- to graze. The Beef Barons – I prefer this to their other name, the Cattle Barons – were often farming large, essentially squatting on massive swathes of land. Up until the mid 1880s these barons were making a killing – America was growing rich, eating better, and anyone selling good dry-stock like cattle was making great money. This wealth reflected in the region, Cheyanne, Wyoming particularly had the newest and best of everything- gas lighting throughout the streets, phone lines – The Cheyanne Club, a plush gentlemen’s club where wealthy cattle investors spent their days.

The other group we have to mention is the Homesteaders. The Homestead Act of 1862 was actually the first of a series of acts passed by Abraham Lincoln, in relation to the new territories of the USA. If a settler wished to stake a claim to unclaimed land up to 160 acres – most of which was west of the Mississippi river, they just had to possess the land, and still be living there five years later. This would become a wildly successful scheme, with around 1.6 million homesteaders occupying around ten percent of the land in the USA. Though they would come in various waves, the bulk of them would begin to arrive in Wyoming around 1874.

A family of homesteaders on their way to Nebraska.

In effect you had two very different schemes, competing with far less oversight than there should have been – and a region with nowhere near enough law enforcement to ensure anyone’s safety. One model was based around a large commons where everyone could use what they needed, without restriction. The other on outright ownership, but with a caveat that if you could be unseated from your land, you would lose it. It really isn’t hard to see how this could get ugly, fast.


By 1886 Wyoming, now overrun by homesteaders, found itself flooded with far too many cattle, which was lowering the cost they could sell their stock for. Some of the homesteaders were running into conflict with the Beef Barons by bringing sheep onto the range, putting further stress on resources. By 1886, counting cattle alone, there were already an estimated 1.5 million cattle in the state, and the free feed which had previously allowed a Beef Baron to buy young cattle at $5 a head, sell them grown at $60 a head, and pay very little in overheads- was fast diminishing. What did people do in this time to protect their livelihoods? For one, you hired a private army of gunslingers, two, you designated anyone you didn’t like a ‘cattle rustler’ and sent your enforcers out to mete out summary justice.


With murders of homesteaders a common occurrence in this time, one particular event did become particularly shocking nonetheless. Now I am sitting on the Johnson County war for an episode in it’s own right some time in the future – but I do need to touch on it today. From 1889 to 1893 the Wyoming Stock Growers Association – a group of barons who regularly gathered at the Cheyanne Club – went to war with a group of homesteaders who’d grown tired of being threatened and attacked by the baron’s heavies. The first flashpoint was the lynching of two homesteaders, Ella Watson and Jim Averill – having falsely been accused of cattle theft. This escalated on both sides, till, in 1892 the Stock Growers Association hired a fugitive killer and bank robber, turned sheriff, turned gun for hire who went by the name Frank Canton to put together an army of Texan killers to come to town and carry out a night of long knives style hit on 70 targets. It has been said Horn was among the killers for hire, though he does not appear in the photo they took to memorialize the planned killings. Nor was he arrested with the others after. I won’t spoil this topic for later, but there were up to three dozen murders resulting in this conflict. It does not go exactly as planned, but is plenty bad enough. This was the world Tom Horn settled into, full time in 1894.


Tom Horn came to work for the barons at a point where their power began to dissipate. Before the Johnson County War they owned the judiciary and politics. At the next round of elections the homesteaders made their numbers known, and got rid of a lot of the barons’ stooges. Were Horn able to see the writing on the wall, one wonders what he would have done differently. It is clear though he really didn’t see the shift in power in the region. He kept doing what he always did.

1895 saw two murders of note which were probably carried out by Horn. The first victim was an English settler named William Lewis. Lewis genuinely came with a bad enough reputation that many were happy to see him dead. In his short time in Cheyanne he had been caught stealing clothing, cheating at faro (a card game mentioned in the last episode) and genuinely cattle rustling. On 30th July a bullet struck Lewis from out of nowhere via a hidden assailant. Lewis was left walking wounded, but in good enough shape to get on with his day, which included fighting with his neighbors – and butchering more stolen cattle. The following day William Lewis was out in the open air skinning a stolen animal when a second bullet, fired from a Winchester 30-30 at a range of 300 yards, struck him in the chest, this time killing him.


The second murder that year was another bona fide rustler, named Fred U Powell. Powell met his end by the same modus operandi. In both cases Tom Horn was arrested and charges brought, but Horn had witnesses who put him elsewhere when the murders occurred. In both cases he walked free. If inclined to make Horn out as some good guy vigilante, it is worth remembering that days after Horn was released without charge for Powell’s murder, a letter arrived at Powell’s old house. Powell’s brother in law Charles Keane had moved in following his murder. The letter threatened Keane with the same fate as Powell if he wasn’t gone in 3 days’ time. Sometimes Horn killed bad men, but bad appears to have had little to do with the killings.


For a little while Horn would be selective over his contracts, not jumping for every job as he had previously, and particularly avoiding anything where he would have to work in a posse. In 1897 Horn was involved in the killing of a cattle rustler in Arizona named William Christian, then later his associate Robert Christian – presumably related. In 1898 he would head off to Cuba however, to get involved in a war.
In February 1898 an American warship, the USS Maine blew up outside of Havana, Cuba. They had been there to look out for Americans in the country, which had broken out in a war of independence between the Cubans and their Spanish rulers. Although the explosion was caused by a malfunction, which in turn set off several rounds of ammunition, and not a Spanish attack- it was just the provocation America needed to enter the war. When the Spanish American war broke out, Tom Horn was quick to re-enlist, as a mule packer. Although Horn was not directly involved with the fighting, he was fired upon numerous times by the enemy, while transporting goods to and from the front lines. Around 1900 he would catch yellow fever and he would be sent back to Wyoming, in spite of wanting to continue on to the Philippines for the next stage of the war.


Back in Wyoming, Horn would commit two more murders before we get to Willie Nickell. The first was Matt Rash, the head of the Brown’s Park Cattle Association – a group of smaller ranchers who had banded together in an effort to stop the beef barons running them out of business. Horn was given instructions to investigate Rash for cattle rustling, allegedly finding him a rustler. The barons green lit his killing. Horn left a note on his door giving Rash 60 days to vacate the area, and when rash would not, on July 21st someone came up to his front door while he ate, and gunned him down at close range. Although not his usual M.O, a dying Rash wrote the name of his killer in his own blood. The writing pointed to Horn. Days later an associate of Rash, a cowboy called Isom Dart – formerly a cattle rustler who went by the name Ned Huddleston, was gunned down from a distance. As per modus operandi 30-30 cartridges were found from the vantage point where the shot had been fired. Which finally brings us back round to where I started this season – the assassination of Willie Nickell.

Willie Nickell


Though Horn knew of the Nickells, his first dealings with them came in 1901. That year Horn took a job with a baron called John Coble, at the Iron Mountain Ranch Company. Coble was a man who hated rustlers, and even more then the rustlers hated sheep farmers. There was one particular sheep man he hated most, and that was Kels Nickell. A feud between the two had turned ugly only prior to Horn’s employment, when Coble and Nickell had come to blows at the Iron Mountain railway station. Reports state Coble threatened Nickell with death if he didn’t leave town immediately. Coble then drew his pistol, but Kels Nickell was too quick for him, pulling out his Bowie knife and stabbing Coble in the gut. The wound was not enough to kill Coble, but more than enough to make him hire an assassin to finish what he started.


The Nickell family had been in the area for 15 years, having come up from Kentucky. Kels had made few friends in that time. Soon after his arrival Kels had dammed water on his property, cutting the water supply to a number of lower ranches. It took other ranchers taking him to court, and the Nickells being fined $500 to stop him doing this. He had also clashed with a neighboring family, the Mahoneys. In all fairness to Tom Horn and John Coble, a lot of people wanted the Nickell family gone. Horn however was the one sent to their farm to deliver the message, pack up and leave, or die.

Soon after Horn began stalking Nickell, watching his every move for weeks. At the time Kels was especially paranoid – packing a sidearm at all times. Tom Horn visited the Nickells’ neighbors, the Miller family on July 15th, finding they too hated Kels Nickell. The following day someone took a shot at Kels from a long distance, though unusually for Horn, he only managed to catch him in the elbow. Kels Nickell managed to escape to the safety of his ranch house. Kels kept his head down for a little while. Meanwhile his son Willie was sent out to do a lot of the jobs his father normally would have. In the cold, dim light of morning on the 18th July 1901 Willie Nickell would be gunned down while opening a fence, his body to be found three days’ later. As usual Horn would have an alibi – another employee of John Coble, who had seen him on Coble’s ranch at around the same time as the murder. Early in August, following the mutilation of several of his sheep, someone took another shot at Kels, but again only managed to injure him. This could have ended like all the other murders, but it didn’t. I’ll be right back after this break to discuss how Tom Horn found himself in a cell, weaving the rope which would hang him.

I’ll pick this tale up for it’s conclusion, part three, next week – Simone

Goodnight My Love – a bonus tale.

To tell this tale of rock and roll I feel I need to tell another short tale first. Context is everything.


On the 2nd September 1957 a group of nine black students, chosen by the Arkansas branch of the NAACP attempted the radical act of going to school. Their destination, Little Rock Central High School – a formerly all white school established in 1926. Only a few years earlier, on 17th May 1954, the US Supreme Court overturned a ‘separate but equal’ ruling established in 1896 via Brown v Board of Education. The case they overturned, Plessy v Fergusson established even an ‘Octoroon’ (someone with 1/8 African American heritage, 7/8 European) named Homer Plessy could be barred from the white compartments on a train so long as the black compartments were nominally equal. This ruling legitimized a state of apartheid in American life for over half a century. The Brown case established, around schooling, but in the same way as Plessy relating to all aspects of life – separate but equal is never equal, and put a sizeable sector in American society at a huge disadvantage. Some southern states particularly fought bitterly against the ruling, and by 1957 the order to desegregate the schools had yet to be challenged.

How did first day of school go for the Little Rock Nine? Terribly. Eight of the group car pooled in. Elizabeth Eckford, whose parents did not have a phone, missed the memo and walked in by herself. The photo of her walking in all on her lonesome – surrounded by screaming white people is one of many sad indictments of racism among some white Americans in the civil rights era. The nine arrived to find Arkansas Governor Orval Faubus had ordered in the National guard to block them from entering.

Elizabeth Eckford and assorted racists.

The incident escalated. Federal justice Ronald Davies began legal proceedings against the Governor. US President Dwight D. Eisenhower stepped in to ensure the nine would go to school. On the 20th September Governor Faubus was legally forced to call the guard off. On the 23rd September the nine tried again. This time they were escorted past 1,000 white protesters by a police guard. When the protesters began rioting, the Little Rock Nine were led away from the school. On the 24th Eisenhower ordered in 1,200 military from the 101st Airbourne to protect the nine, and on 25th September they finally made it through their first full day at Little Rock Central High. The tale of the schooling of the Little Rock Nine is one of bullying and harassment, though one of the teens stuck in there till graduation day.


Keep this tale in mind as I share with you another tale from Little Rock Arkansas, 6th February 1960. Those brave nine broke new ground, but they hardly cured Little Rock of such malignant racism.

Mr Easy, Jesse Belvin.

Now… let’s talk about Jesse Belvin. Many of you may not have heard of Mr Belvin – and that is absolutely understandable – cultural amnesia really is the norm and the stars we remember the rare exceptions. It is worth knowing however in 1960 Jesse Belvin was a star on the rise, billed by RCA, his record company as the ‘Black Elvis’. He had several successful years of writing and performance behind him – and had squandered much of it by selling his share for money up front. He had a song which topped the R&B charts with an earlier duo, a songwriting credit on the song with which all other Doo Wop classics are measured, and, in my opinion, the most beautiful lullaby ever written – used by Alan Freed to close his radio show and covered by dozens of artists. His history is labyrinthine, but let’s see if we can run through it in a paragraph or two.

Having started right out of the gates in 1951 with a gig as the vocalist for fellow Jefferson high school alum and legendary saxophonist Cecil ‘Big Jay’ McNeeley’s R&B act Three Dots and a Dash – Belvin saw some early success with ‘All the Wine is Gone’ – an answer record to Stick Mcghee’s ‘Drinkin’ Wine Spo-dee-O-dee’. The track did respectably in the R&B charts but by 1952 Belvin had gone solo, with the decent but non charting ‘Baby Don’t Go’. Restlessly he abandoned his solo act to form a duo with Marvin Phillips, known as Marvin and Jesse. The two scored a #2 hit on the R&B charts in 1952 with ‘Dream Girl’. It is also at this time that Jesse got together with Gaynel Hodge and Curtis Williams, formerly of the popular R&B vocal group ‘The Hollywood Flames’ and co-wrote the song which would become the archetype for almost all doo wop ballads. He would be drafted into the army before Hodge and Williams were to see any success with the song, under the moniker The Penguins.

The song, Earth Angel, would sell five million copies for the Penguins… twenty million records when you count the slew of cover records of the song – but the Penguins would be cheated of their royalties by their record head Walter ‘Dootsie’ Williams, who refused to pay the group a cent for breach of contract. Jesse Belvin, however would successfully manage to sue Dootsie (Dootsie himself a particularly litigious lawyer by trade) for some share of the royalties on his release from armed service.



Upon his release from the army, Jessie Belvin was a dynamo – constantly developing new musical projects. Writing and performing for whoever would have him – and on occasion waiving his rights to various songs for a quick couple of hundred dollars in pocket now. He would occasionally get together with Marvin Phillips, who was now performing as ‘Marvin and Johnny’ with a rotating roster of Johnnys. He recorded with a group called The Californians, having a minor hit with ‘My Angel’, The Sheiks who charted with ‘So Fine’, The Cliques whose ‘The girl of my dreams’ also charted. The Gassers whose ‘Hum de Dum’ didn’t do a lot – which is a shame. I think the song has so many great hooks – even if it is one in a line of knock offs of Gene and Eunice’s Ko Ko Mo. With the Saxons he charted with ‘Is it true’. He provided backing vocals on The Shields ‘You Cheated’ one of an extremely small number of songs from this era where a song released by a white artist on a major label was stolen by a black group on a small label – and the black group ended up having the bigger hit. My touchstone on all things rock and roll, Andrew Hickey stated in his episode on Jesse Belvin the above list is not even half of what he was involved in from 1954- 58.

Of course Jesse Belvin also had a solo career. As a solo artist he released a diverse, interesting portfolio of songs – but the song he has become best known for was 1956’s Goodnight My Love – a smooth ballad, a lullaby really – which has gone on to be covered by everyone from Paul Anka, to Gloria Estefan, Evanescence’s Amy Lee, to Los Lobos. Harry Connick Jr to Aaron Neville. The song did very respectfully – #7 in the R&B charts – but Goodnight My Love earned it’s place in the great American songbook after the famed DJ Alan Freed made a ritual of using the song to close his radio show. There has been controversy over whether Jesse sold his share of the songwriting credits or not to record producer John Marascalco. Marascalco himself was a talented songwriter who penned a number of classic rock and roll songs, including last week’s bonus episode song (Little Richard’s Rip it Up), but a story persists Belvin sold him the co-write needing just $400 at the time.

It was in the midst of this period that Jesse met his wife Jo Ann. Far more business-minded, Jo Ann Belvin began to focus Jesse on a career path set to bring him greater success – and to finally step up as the star he deserved to be. The new Jesse Belvin was to be a smooth balladeer in the mold of Nat King Cole. He was to focus on one project only and follow through accordingly. The major label RCA jumped at the opportunity to work with Jesse, however saw his path slightly differently. He was the ‘Black Elvis’ he could croon, he could belt out rockers as well as anyone. Besides being extremely talented and charismatic he was the likeable face they needed to break into an untapped market of white teens in – dare I say it – horrendously racist towns like civil rights era Little Rock Arkansas.

And so it was that Jesse Belvin found himself on a tour of the South, alongside Sam Cooke, Jackie Wilson and Marv Johnson – an all black roster, on what would be billed as ‘The first rock and roll show of 1960’.



There is a great deal of speculation about exactly what happened on 6th February 1960 at Little Rock’s Robinson auditorium. What can be said for certain was Little Rock was little changed, if changed at all, in the few years since the Little Rock Nine. There were protests over their arrival, and allegedly death threats made against the performers. The show that night was likely played to the first integrated audience in the town’s history, further enraging the town’s racists. There is an unverified line in this tale, which states the Belvins were increasingly concerned this tour was going to end badly and were ringing Jesse’s mother daily – where normally they would touch base one or twice a month.
The show was allegedly stopped twice due to groups of white protesters throwing glass bottles down from the mezzanine and fighting with black concertgoers– though if local police managed such incidents, they failed to keep any records. However bad the show was, at the very least it is fair to say the night was unpleasant, and jarring.

The claim has been made that racist elements in the town tampered with the performers vehicles. This may be true – Jackie Wilson had car trouble which caused him to run late on his way to Austin, Texas after the show. There is no evidence of tampering on the black Cadillac carrying the Belvins, guitarist Kirk Davis and their driver Charles Shackleford – but this is because there is NO evidence preserved from the crash scene, no notes, photos – if a report was ever filed it is long lost to history. A bystander claims the police officer at the scene exclaimed their back wheels had been tampered with. There was a rumour someone may have slashed their tyres. At the end of the day we just don’t know what happened – thanks to, at the very least, lazy or incompetent police work. At most horrendously racist and complicit through their inaction.

Jesse and Jo Ann Belvin.



What can be said for certain is the Belvins’ black Cadillac, on its way towards towards Hope, Arkansas, collided head on with another vehicle. Jesse and Shackleford were killed instantly, while Kirk Davis was badly injured. Jesse, it appears, had attempted to shield Jo Ann, possibly saving her life in the immediate aftermath. Jo Ann Belvin was taken to hospital, badly injured, but still alive. Not believing Jo Ann had either insurance, or the money to pay for her treatment, hospital staff left her on a gurney -refusing treatment until Jackie Wilson arrived. Wilson convinced the staff he could cover the costs of treatment, however at this stage Jo Ann had been left for hours to die. Wilson himself had lost precious time getting to Austin due to his own car troubles. When he arrived to find the Belvins had yet to show up, he first called Jesse’s mother, then doubled back till he found out what had happened. Jo Ann would too pass away days later, leaving their two young children orphaned. Within a few weeks of their passing rumours spread throughout the town that tyres had been slashed that night. Those whispers reached a high enough pitch that newspapers got wind of them and reported that the Belvins and Charles Shackleford had in fact been murdered. Was there a thorough police investigation into the scuttlebutt? As if you even had to ask… of course there wasn’t.

Jesse Belvin is by far my favorite member of the 27 club, and it breaks my heart that I can make that statement about him.

Podcast Episode 9: Tom Horn – Gunslinger (part 1)

Hi everyone, just a quick update. In my 9 to 5 I normally spend a reasonable portion of the day on the phones, but in the wake of the COVID 19 lockdown that volume has maybe tripled, from incoming calls. When I recorded the scripts for both parts of Tom Horn my voice was strained… my throat extremely agitated.

As such the recording was less than desirable. I am going to let the scripts for the podcasts run, but wait till my voice is recovered before I re-record and upload them. Apologies to the listeners – Simone

Hi all welcome to Tales of History and Imagination, season two. Today I want to tell the tale of one Tom Horn. In a number of ways Tom Horn was the imagined image of the rough, tough frontiersman. He worked on the railways, as a scout, a mule packer, a rancher, miner, lawman, and a gun for hire. Horn came up in a world full of opportunities for rough men willing to murder without conscience. He found, in his relatively short life however, that the world changed beneath him. As such his death is often considered a turning point – the end of the wild west, and though Horn was hardly the last of the frontiersmen – his death sent a clear message to desperados and black hats everywhere that their lawlessness would no longer be tolerated. Horn’s tale also remains noteworthy, as the incident which finally brought him low is mired in controversy.


I want to briefly pick up the tale in November 1903. Our subject is in a jail cell in Cheyanne Wyoming, just killing time. In the lead up to the date he’s to be executed – November 20th 1903- Horn has been busying himself with two tasks. One is the writing of a memoir- a pulpy, dime store affair, full of tall tales. The other is rather more macabre. A bona fide state champion in roping cattle, he weaved the very rope which would be used to hang him. Tom Horn has been charged, tried and sentenced in the murder of 14 year old Willie Nickell.


Willie, The son of local sheep farmers Kels and Mary Nickell, was found murdered on 21st July 1901. Sent on a mission to talk with a stranger who had been mooching around their farm looking for work, he was assassinated from a distance with a Winchester 30-30 rifle. Struck three times, Willie struggled in the first blush of day back towards the farm house, stumbling a distance of 75 feet before he gave out. At 7am three days later his body was found – the killer long gone. Whether Willie had been the target in the dim early morning light itself is up for speculation – only days earlier someone had attempted to kill Kels Nickell, but only managed to shoot him in the elbow. Kels was not well liked, and many locals would have loved to see him ended, but more on that later. Horn had reasons to doubt he was the killer too, definitely more on that as the tale goes. Let’s kick this off, welcome folks to Tales of History and Imagination Episode 9: Tom Horn- Gunslinger.

(Theme music)


Tom Horn was likely born November 21st 1860 in Scotland County, Missouri to Thomas Horn Sr and his wife Mary. The Horns were a large, strictly religious family – Tom the 5th of 12 children. Although Horn himself depicts his childhood as one big boys own adventure, a real life Mark Twain novel, it is clear he was a lonely child. Much of his childhood consisted of him cutting school to go hunting and tracking through the wilderness, accompanied by his dog Shedrick. Horn makes much of his disdain for learning and of bookish people – including a tale of beating an older, bookish cousin staying with his family, basically out of disdain for the learned cousin. He writes of various fights he, and occasionally Shedrick would get into with other children– and of how mean, tough and abusive his father was.

Image stolen from the movie Old Yeller but you get the idea…

Aged 14 Horn got into one fight which escalated way out of his control. One day he spotted a group of travellers passing through – two teenagers at the back of the group – Tom picked a fight with the boys, stating anyone who carried a single barreled shotgun, as one boy was – wasn’t a real man. The larger boy of the two engaged in a fist fight with Horn. In the melee the younger boy put down the gun and tried to separate the two, only to be mauled by Shedrick. – At this the elder boy picked up the shotgun and shot Shedrick dead. Horn would later recall this was “the first and only real sorrow” of his life. Not long after this incident he got into an argument with his father, announcing he was leaving home to moving west. Tom Sr gave him a thrashing which left him bedridden for a week – however as soon as he could, Tom Horn sold what little he had and struck out west.

First Horn reached Kansas City, picking up work on the railroads, from there- moving to Santa Fe, to drive mail coaches. It was around this time that Horn claims to have learned to speak Spanish. By the time Horn turned 16 he had picked up a number of skills in the wild west. He knew the region very well, and he had picked up at least conversational skills in Apache and Spanish. He had acquired a Winchester rifle, a horse, and enough sense to navigate a dangerous, lawless region without getting himself killed. Arizona was particularly hazardous at the time, as the latest flashpoint in a decades long war with the Apache tribes. The resistance had passed from earlier chiefs like Cochise and Mangas Coloradus to Geronimo, who was proving far too wily for the American soldiers. The army always needed good scouts, and in July 1876, at the recommendation of chief scout Al Sieber, Tom Horn was picked up by the Fifth Cavalry. This would be one of several stints, on and off, with the military.

Chief scout Al Sieber

The first thing I should say about Tom Horn’s military service is yes, the guy saw action, but examination of primary sources of the era paint him as a teller of tall tales, a grandiose bullshit merchant always putting himself in the centre of the action. He was genuinely tough and a cool customer, and was recognized for his bravery, but much of what he wrote of himself was nonsense. He did became an expert gunslinger in the army though, and that served him well in his life. Second thing I should say is his first stretch, which ran until 1880 was pretty uneventful. Horn lived for some time among the Apache, and made all kinds of connections. He did a lot of hunting, and may have taken a common law bride he later abandoned.
During his first run there was a constant, looming threat from Geronimo and his tribe in the air. One reason they were so formidable was they would strike in American territory, guerrila style, then disappear back over the border into Mexico. The 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, signed at the end of the Mexican – American war, barred American soldiers from pursuing them across the border. People hunkered down, leaving little for Horn and the scouts to do, so he temporarily found work elsewhere. First he spent time working on his brother Charles’ ranch in Burton, Kansas – then moved on to Leadville, Colorado – in the hope of making his fortune as a miner. This did not go successfully for him, but it did provide him an opportunity to work as a gun for hire.

To add a little context – in this tale we will touch upon big businesses doing horrific things several times. As settlers moved westwards, and particularly as they discovered items of value, the railways followed. Private enterprise rather than public infrastructure works drove the development. Cash was king, and oversight was slim to none. When two companies decided to develop in the same area wars, actual wars with armies of hired guns broke out. In 1864 the Sacramento Valley Railroad and Central Pacific Railroad companies came to blows over a proposed length of track in Placer County. In the late 1880s the Rock Island Railroad clashed with two Oklahoma counties, Enid county and Pond Creek over land speculation in their back yards. In 1879 the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe railway and the Denver and Rio Grande company broke a truce around the Royal Gorge track. The reason tensions flared up? This portion of track became a great deal more valuable after silver was struck in nearby Leadville, Colorado – the same strike which brought Tom Horn to town. The ensuing turf war saw several infamous gunslingers brought in by both railways – perhaps the best known of the bunch today Doc Holliday.


By the time Horn joined up – we know he did though don’t even know which side hired him – most of the fighting was over. When he moved on and attempted to hire himself out elsewhere, he struggled, having yet to build up a reputation as a hard man. He rejoined the army, staying till 1884. When he left this time his reputation did proceed him, and he found work at the Arizona cattle ranch of Horace and Burt Dunlop. This time the job came with a license to shoot and kill cattle thieves on sight. Whether all his kills were actual rustlers, or a combination of bona fide thieves, business rivals and people the Dunlops – or Horn himself- had a grudge against is debatable but we know he killed 17 men in the year he worked for the Dunlops.

Ironically Horn became sheriff of Gila County the following year, but was lucky to keep his badge for the year that he did. During 1885 Sheriff Tom Horn would be arrested twice, but twice found not guilty in the ambush murders of two “cattle thieves”. Horn had begun to develop a modus operandi of killing from a distance – sniper style – although he was as capable as anyone in a conventional gunfight. It is worth mentioning, any time he was accused, Horn was able to arrange an alibi. In a fairly lawless time where powerful friends could make things disappear, and unlikely alibis could be provided Tom Horn could, and did get away with murder.

By the end of 1885 Horn had rejoined the army, this time as a civilian mule driver. The army had built up enough resources now to pursue Geronimo. At times they would even chase him over to Mexico. The Mexicans came to a special agreement with the USA, as the Apache were causing them trouble too. Horn spent much of his autobiography describing his central role in the hunt for, and final surrender of Geronimo – even claiming to be the translator who facilitated Geronimo’s surrender – he wasn’t, an officer named Charles Gatewood translated for General Miles and Geronimo. Gatewood’s family were livid at the claim and threatened to sue Horn’s publishers.
Horn however was involved in a shootout with a Mexican militia while on the wrong side of the border, in January 1886. Part of a small crew commanded by Captain Emmet Crawford, they had notified the Mexicans they were entering the Sierra Madres in pursuit of a band of Apaches – but they drew fire from an irregular militia which clearly hadn’t got the memo. Crawford was killed and Horn wounded in the firefight. He would again be involved in a number of skirmishes in Arizona, which would win him accolades from the military. All the same, Horn wrote of single-handedly tracking Geronimo back to his base in Sierra Gordo, near Sonora Mexico. He claimed to have rode into the enemy camp, all on his lonesome, and negotiated a surrender with Geronimo himself. The truth is he never tracked them down, never negotiated, although he appears to have been present at the event.

Geronimo


By 1887 Horn would be working as a gun for hire yet again, this time in the Pleasant Valley War. This war grew out of a feud between two families – the Tewksbury clan and the Grahams, between 1882 and 1892. Both sides hired killers as the feud escalated. The alleged reason the war broke out? The Tewksburys started farming sheep alongside their cattle, bringing sheep onto the common grazing land known as the range – put a pin in that concept for now, it will be important later in the tale.
Horn, as always, is unclear about his involvement in the war, claiming he brokered peace between the factions. He does appear to have been aligned with the Cattle owners however. Of the 50 deaths, several men on the Tewkesbury side were assassinated from a distance by a ‘sharpshooter’. This is thought to be Tom Horn’s true contribution. The Pleasant Valley War would cost the lives of almost all the men in both families, and delayed Arizona’s ascension into statehood till 1912. If your territory had a running feud with a death toll which would make a Hatfield or McCoy blush, then maybe that territory was ‘not ready’ to join the USA yet. Horn would take a little time out in 1888 to compete in, and win several roping competitions across the West. He would make his way back to the Dunlop family ranch, and may have been involved in the hunt for Butch Cassidy and the Hole in the Wall gang, but again his tall tales cast the shadow of doubt on anything he may have genuinely done.

John Tewksbury’s grave


In late 1889 Tom Horn’s tale took an unexpected turn. A deputy marshall named Cyrus ‘Doc’ Shores approached Horn for help in tracking down a gang of horse thieves. Shores was astonished when Horn managed captured the thieves without firing a shot. He simply marched up to them and through force of personality convinced them to put down their guns and surrender. Soon after he would recommend Horn to Alan Pinkerton for a role in the Pinkerton detective agency.

The Pinkertons, like Horn, flourished in their time because the west was such a lawless place. Established in 1850 they provided private security for businesses who needed protection from outlaws, and would sometimes pursue and arrest outlaws after the fact. The Pinkertons first came to prominence when they foiled the February 1861 Baltimore plot, an alleged plan to stab President Lincoln to death as he stepped off a train in Baltimore. This is a whole story in of itself, historians argue if there even was a plot to kill Lincoln in this instance – and the alleged mastermind, a pro slavery Sicilian hairdresser called Cypriano Ferrandini was accused but never indicted. The Pinkertons would however go on to protect the president – and run an extensive pro union intelligence network throughout the Confederate South during the American Civil War. Of note, personally, I like that they hired women and minorities from day one – an unusual practice in those days. The really big downside to the Pinkertons was they infiltrated unions, threatened striking workers and occasionally broke strikes with deadly force as America continued to industrialize. Tom Horn joined the Pinkerton Detective Agency in 1890

That year Peg Leg Watson and Bert Curtis, two members of the notorious Hole in the wall gang, robbed a train in Cotopaxi, Colorado, leading to a massive manhunt involving numerous gangs of lawmen and vigilantes. Horn and Doc Shores were also on the case. They first came upon the robbers trail, and tracked them upwards of 500 miles. At the McCoy ranch they caught up with Watson and Curtis and a gunfight ensued. No one was killed and the two escaped. They pursued the train robbers into Oklahoma, where Horn and Shores found a sleeping Curtis at the home of a lady friend. Days later Peg Leg Watson returned to find the two waiting for him. He would draw his pistols and prepare for battle but a calm, collected Horn would walk across to him – Winchester 30-30 rifle loosely by his side, and convince him he needed to come with them.

Over time however Horn’s hair trigger would return, as would his practice of sharpshooting wrongdoers. His habit of drunken public bragging about his exploits also annoyed the typically tight lipped Pinkertons. There were suggestions he was still turning his hand to assassinations on the side for the highest bidder. He let himself down when he failed to apprehend a group of train robbers in Salem, Oregon. Then, in April 1891, Tom Horn walked into a casino in Reno, Nevada- bandanna wrapped around his face, pistol in hand. He walked up to a faro dealer and relieved him of $800 cash. Horn would be arrested boarding a train soon after. He would face two trials for the robbery, however he finally got off after scapegoating the robbery on Frank Shercliffe, a wanted jewel thief known as Kid McCoy. After this incident other Pinkertons began to view Horn as a ‘dirty cop’, and would coerce him to move on to greener pastures – quite literally. His next role, officially a farm hand – unofficially an enforcer – for the Swan Land and Cattle Company, Wyoming. Yet again Horn found himself, officially, a bad man in the employ of the unscrupulous Beef Barons.

And this is where we’ll wrap up part one – in parts two and three I’ll conclude Tom Horn’s tale, discussing just what he was up to in his final years, and how the world was changing. Please join us for the next episode of Tom Horn – Gunslinger

Please note I’ll be putting this out as a two part podcast series, and a three part blog with additional sidebar. See you all next Tuesday morning NZ time- Simone

Quoth the Raven – The tale of the Poe Toaster

Hi everyone welcome to the final blog tale before we jump back into the podcasts again – and of course the podcast scripts here. As some of you will know, or have guessed I am a fan of Edgar Allan Poe – why steal from his ‘Tales of Mystery and Imagination’ for the name of your blog if not? It seems fitting to do a quick tale on ‘The Tomahawk Man’, Eddy to Mrs Poe, before we jump back into season two of the podcasts.
With Poe there are several tales you could tell, and I am saving most of them for another time. In this episode I want to talk about the mysterious ‘Poe toaster’ – apparently a Poe Superfan?

By way of quick biography, Edgar Allan Poe (January 19th 1809- October 7th 1849), was one of the greats of American literature. Though never receiving the plaundits or monetary rewards he should in life, in the years since his passing much of his work has been recognized for it’s brilliance, often groundbreaking style and the sheer breadth of Mr Poe’s intellectual capabilities. An accomplished poet, short story writer, occasional novellist and critic, Poe also exhibited he knew more than a thing or two about science, cryptography, seafaring, and investigation. While American readers initially struggled to recognize his genius, French writers like Charles Baudelaire and Stephane Mallarme sung his praises loudly – in no small part because they owed much of their style to Poe. His work did have some influence at home however – the seafaring tale ‘The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket’ was a huge influence on Herman Melville’s ‘Moby Dick’. His Auguste Dupin stories, ‘The Murder in the Rue Morgue’, ‘The Murder of Mary Roget’ and ‘The Purloined Letter’ are among the first detective stories written – most critics would consider him the father of detective fiction. He was a master of the horror story, an early sci-fi writer, and a poet of note. If he had only ever written ‘The Raven’ his place in American anthologies of poetry would be assured, but ‘To Helen’, ‘Annabel Lee’, ‘Ulalume’, ‘A dream within a dream’ only reinforce his greatness.

Edgar Allan Poe played a number of roles in his short time on earth; a soldier, an assistant newspaper editor, publisher, at one time a political hopeful… Many remember his as a little creepy beyond his writing when recalling how, aged 26, he married his 13 year old cousin. Some will know he was a little too fond of alcohol. You may recall the time he got into a public spat with another titan of American literature, ‘Tales by a Wayside Inn’s Henry Wadsworth Longfellow after accusing the professor of plaigarism, or the far more consuming battle between he and Rufus Griswold – who got the last word on Mr Poe when he got to write his, unflattering obituary.

On October 3rd 1849 a delirious, disheveled Poe was found outside Gunner’s Hall (an Irish tavern) in Baltimore, Maryland, quoth his rescuer Joseph W. Walker “In great distress and… in need of immediate assistance”. He was taken to The Washington Medical College, where he would die on October 7th. The suspicious nature of his death was cause for much speculation. Why was he found in clothes which didn’t belong to him? Had he been kidnapped by a Cooping gang and forced to vote at multiple polling booths in the local election that day, and if so had he died of poisoning from bad ‘rotgut’, home brewed alcohol often given to cooping victims after each vote cast? Had he died from the DTs from being denied alcohol, either self inflicted or by others? Could it have been heart disease, cholera? meningitis? syphilis? Any were posible at the time in Baltimore. Was he bitten by a rabid dog? Had he been murdered and if so by whom? I doubt we will ever know as his medical records were, all too conveniently, lost soon after.
Edgar Allan Poe was buried two days later, at Westminster Hall, Baltimore. This is where the tale proper starts.

On 19th January 1949, the anniversary of Poe’s birth, and marking 100 years since his death, a shadowy figure was observed holding vigil in the dead of night, at the writer’s grave. Dressed all in black, save a white scarf masking his face. A wide brimmed hat further obscuring the visitor’s identity – the man knelt at Poe’s grave, laid three red roses, and poured a glass of cognac. Having toasted Poe, the stranger left the remainder for the man in the grave then disappeared from whence he came. A handful of onlookers, whose reason for hanging around a graveyard in the murky darkness escapes me, caught sight of the libation. This was the start of a ritual which would run for decades. Every January 19th between midnight and 6 AM, the shadowy stranger would appear, place three roses, drink to the deceased, then leave. Over time the crowds of onlookers would increase. No-one ever tried to detain, or unmask the Poe Toaster. As such no one has ever been able to ascertain his connection to Edgar Allan Poe, and why the Poe Toaster feels this deep obligation to visit the man on his birthday.

The reason for the three roses is equally uncertain. It could represent a rose for Poe, one for his wife Virginia and the third for his mother in law, Maria Clemm – all buried under the cenotaph. No one is sure why cognac – Were he to take a lead from his tales then a glass of the rarer, more expensive Amontillado sherry makes more sense (FYI if you haven’t read ‘The Cask of Amontillado’ before, please do. It is wonderfully unsettling, link to Australian Amazon page here).


In 1990 Life Magazine ran an article of the toaster, with a photograph of him kneeling at the grave. After this the number of onlookers grew exponentially.

On occasion the toaster woud leave a note for onlookers. One year he left a note stating “Edgar I haven’t forgotten you”. In 1993 a note was left stating “the torch will be passed”, and in 1999 a note stating the original Poe Toaster had passed on, and his sons had now assumed the mantle. In 2001 the Poe Toaster broke completely with tradition and left a note commenting on the Superbowl. A 2004 note was critical of the French criticisms of American action in Iraq. The son of the original toaster was noticeably less sartorial, somewhat less of a dashing and mysterious figure. On one occasion he showed up wearing jeans.

In 2009 the world watched, and waited in anticipation. The year marked 200 years since Edgar Allan Poe’s birthday. A sizeable crowd hunkered down and awaited the Poe Toaster’s arrival – but he never came. He would never be seen again. Quoth the Raven, Nevermore.

Since 2016 a Poe Toaster has returned, to keep the tradition alive. In the wee small hours he enters the former Gothic church, lays the three roses, and drinks a glass to the memory of Mr Poe – however these days the role is played by an actor in the employ of the city. What started as an act of love, admiration or even repentance has now become a tourist trap.

Next week Tuesday I’ll post the first episode of season two of the podcast, and of course the scripts here. I’m tackling the tale of a wild west assassin. There will be added background music, and sharper scripts (everything is getting multiple drafts now) though the same old narrator, always a little weak and weary from pondering over volumes of forgotten lore in the wee small hours. The podcast music of course by New Zealand hard rock band Ishtar, whose “Just One Life’ borrowed Poe’s trick in the Raven – a simple refrain (in his case ‘Nevermore’, theirs ‘So far away’) then dropping the phrase at a vital point, to knock their listeners off kilter. Tomorrow night I will be trying to mix samples from the song into the background and exporting the finished product to Podbean.
Take care all – Simone

Little Richard- the architect of Rock & Roll – bonus tale.

Just a quick note ahead of this blog post. I did have a plan next week Thursday to drop another Tale of Rock & Imagination bonus piece – a piece I’ve got sketched out but will hold off on for another week. I was also planning another episode of this Rock & Imaginaton series for a few weeks’ time and calling it something like ‘Sex & Religion’ or something similar. In it I wanted to discuss people like Big Mama Thornton, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Johnnie Ray…. maybe Jackie Shane? and in it share a story of a Sister Rosetta gig in Macon Georgia – some time in 1946 or 47 where she invited some 14 year old kid up on stage with her to play a few songs – and how this young, flamboyant kid was dynamite and would go on to revolutionize popular music. Seeing that kid has just passed this does seem timely. Apologies dear readers I’m pasting my Facebook post up here today, unvarnished as it is. RIP Little Richard.

Sad news this morning to read ‘the architect of rock and roll’ Little Richard has passed on. Musically, over the space of a little over two years he turned out several of the greatest rock songs ever. As a person I think it has to be said this vibrant, larger than life personality lived a life often darkened by the caprices of his strict pentecostal upbringing, and his thuggish church deacon father who never accepted his bissexual, non-binary child. This caused Richard to vacillate between his true, authentic self, and the man his God, or his father, or the congregation demanded of him.

There was Little Richard, the flamboyant, iron lunged piano thumper – came up through the carnival circuit opening for snake oil salesmen, then on to a drag revue before being discovered by Specialty records. Androgynous, flashy, overtly sexual. A preacher of the gospel of free love, good times and hedonism. The kind of guy who would write a song about having sex in an alley with a drag queen (Long Tall Sally) and just smile to himself knowingly when stuffy old Pat Boone stole his song……

Then there was Richard Wayne Penniman, deeply religious and terrified he was going to hell – aboard a ferry in Australia in October 1957. The Russians had just launched Sputnik days earlier, he had just endured an extremely turbulent flight to Aussie. Sputnik had been playing on his mind all night and he had been having nightmares of apocalyptic fireballs, hellfire and thunder. This Richard stood at the edge of the boat throwing $100,000 worth of jewellery overboard and proclaiming as soon as this tour was over he was done with rock and roll, boyfriends and partying – he would go on for some time to become a preacher.

I love Richard’s music, feel a little sad to think of the turmoil he must have gone through in life. No doubt will be playing some Little Richard around the house today.

A single light punching through the darkness – a bonus tale.

Hey all I thought I might share a few short tales I have been sketching out of late. The story of these …. lets call them Tales of Music and Imagination… is as follows. In early March 2020, as online talk began to spread of this new disease – and my newsfeed began to fill up with a mixture of genuine news, 5G conspiracy theories, questionable COVID jokes and naysayers – my first inclination was to get the hell away from social media for a while. I would look for the expert analysis, avoid think pieces, dodge hysteria till I knew I had something to panic about.

My social media hiatus lasted half a day.

My second inclination was to try to up my own contribution to the mix – my specialist topic for this round? Tales from the Origins of Rock & Roll. Every day for around two months I posted a new song each day – with a couple of paragraphs about the song or the artist. Every morning as I had my coffee, before I went up into my office, I would drop a new track.

Whether you love old rock songs or not I think, personally, everyone should be fascinated with the tales which surround them. If music is the soundtrack of our lives, as Motown’s Berry Gordy once said – the music of the postwar era is the soundtrack to a tale of rapid change, growth and struggle. It gives one yet another perspective to assess the world from in that time.

In the following bonus tales I’m not going to regurgitate the original project, or run 50 plus episodes, just a handful of short tales I feel should be told more. I need to acknowledge my source for much of the information on the bonus tales. I am a huge fan of Andrew Hickey’s A History of Rock and Roll in 500 Songs – when it comes to rock and roll, Mr Hickey’s knowledge is extraordinary.

Anyway folks, longer intro than the Tale itself. Please enjoy – Simone

On the evening of 23rd December 1938 the most culturally important concert in history took place at New York’s Carnegie Hall. Funded by the Communist party of America, and stage managed by the talent scout, civil rights campaigner, record producer and scion of the Vanderbilt’s, John Hammond – the From Spirituals to Swing concert was something to behold. To many well heeled, white Americans the concert would be their first exposure to American race music; as some of the brightest lights of gospel, swing, blues and boogie-woogie rocked the venerable old stage.

The tale most often shared of the night is the bluesman Robert Johnson was meant to play, but when Hammond went looking for him, he found he had passed on – legend has it Johnson had expired 16th August 1938 near Greenwood Mississippi. According to legend he was poisoned by a publican, jealous that Johnson had gotten a little too friendly with his wife. The concert opened with a single spotlight punching through the dark – the light aimed at a gramophone playing one of the bluesman’s discs. If this were a tale on the ’27 club’ this would make a fitting start. My focus today however is not Robert Johnson, The Count Basie Orchestra, The Kansas City Six…. On the 23rd December 1938, Blues shouter Big Joe Turner teamed up with Boogie-Woogie piano master Pete Johnson for a short, impromptu set. One song, titled ‘It’s All Right Baby’ on the night, but later recorded under ‘Roll ‘Em Pete’ was groundbreaking. 82 years on it may not seem so; but the duo married barrel-house piano with the ‘floating lyrics’ seen regularly in the blues. There was an element of the ‘Hokum song’ a form borrowed by race music from vaudeville, full of sexual double entendre.

Most importantly, where the blues and boogie-woogie was typically a ‘four to the floor’ shuffle, Turner – a big man with a big voice who could bellow above an orchestra – stood a way back from the mic, hands out front clapping to the 2 and 4 of the 1,2,3,4 of the song. The inclusion of this ‘backbeat’ may very well make “It’s all right Baby” patient zero for what, 2 decades later would become known as rock and roll.
Of course there is no first rock and roll song. It was a form that developed from several landmark recordings. Long before Elvis gyrated to Arthur ‘big boy’ Crudup songs, Bill Haley rocked this joint to Jimmy Preston covers or Ike Turner’s Rhythm Kings liberally borrowed from Jimmy Liggins’ Cadillac Boogie, dozens of musicians were developing new, rebellious sounds.

The following bonus series is a collection of short tales of rock and roll. None of them will solve which song is patient zero. All of them will, hopefully, cast a spotlight into the dark and uncover something new.

Charles Byrne’s longest show.

Hi all, for the following – extended run of blogs prior to season two of the podcast I did promise to keep away from plagues. This tale does discuss doctors, and premature death. If this is not your cup of tea right now I understand. Please scan through some of my other essays on the sidebar for a range of other topics – Simone.

Charles Byrne, it was fair to say, had not been feeling well for some time. At the age of twenty two, the Derry native had made – and lost – a tidy sum of money in London in quite a short space of time. When he had first arrived in 1782 people in the streets marveled as he walked along the street – occasionally casually reaching up to a lit gas lamp to light his pipe, or stooping to walk under a street sign. People may stare, but hell – when life gives you lemons what can you do other than make a little lemonade? Charles had come to the big smoke, first via Scotland– in the footsteps of fellow Irishman Patrick Cotter O’Brien – to make his fortune as a human exhibit. Someone to be looked up to, talked about, stared at – he was London’s hottest ticket in 1782.

Allegedly eight feet four inches – though in all likelihood maybe a little over seven foot seven – Charles was a sight to behold. Billed as ‘The Irish Giant’, Byrne charged 12 ½ p per person to see him, and in the early days of his act the pennies added up. Londoners were astounded by this real life colossus, who played night after night to packed out rooms. Charles Byrne was living comfortably for a short while – even making enough that he could make a few investments. At the age of 21 the sky was the limit for Charles Byrne, an acromegalic giant who began life an average sized kid, later going through a series of growth spurts. By 22 Charles was yesterday’s news. Work dried up. Byrne’s investments failed. Byrne began drinking. He moved to cheaper, less hospitable lodgings where his tuberculosis (he was a ‘lunger’) flared up. His condition caught the attention of the eminent surgeon John Hunter – a man responsible for much of what we know now of microbial diseases, bone growth, the lymphatic system, even artificial insemination. His work alongside Edward Jenner on smallpox began immunology. That day Hunter was not interested in curing Byrne, he offered to buy his body. Horrified and disgusted, Byrne threw Hunter out of his home. Though he would not leave a will, he made it very clear to his circle of friends his body was not to be put on display by some surgeon, museum or carnival barker. He had been gawked at, by necessity, by thousands of Londoners in his short life. He refused to let that be his eternal fate.


When Charles Byrne died on July 1st 1783 the anatomists swarmed Byrne’s home, in the words of a newspaper of the day “just as harpooners would an enormous whale”. A plan was made by his friends to push past them, retrieve his body from the funeral home, and take his coffin out to sea, in the seaside town of Margate. They would give Charles a burial at sea. This is exactly what they did.


Then four years later John Hunter exhibited a skeleton of an acromegalic giant, a little over seven feet seven tall. Hunter had managed to bribe a funeral home employee with £500, around £76,000 in 2020 money, to steal Byrne’s body and fill his coffin with rocks. For a little over 230 years Charles Byrne remained on display for all to see. In 2018 the Hunter museum closed, and people put forward the suggestion now was the time to lay Charles down in a coffin, take him out to Margate, and allow him his final wish. As far as I’m aware this has yet to happen.

Patrick Cotter O’Brien paid close attention to the fate of his countryman – and when he passed in 1806 he made sure he was buried under 12 feet of solid stone, so no one could snatch his remains. In 1906, 1972 and finally 1986 he would be temporarily dug up and his bones would be examined. At a verified eight foot one in middle age he is the first verifiable eight footer in history.

The remains of Patrick Cotter O’Brien in 1906.