Generally Eclectic Review

Reviews of book on music - all sorts. Feel free to share your comments, criticisms, and replies with my readers!

Location: Fredonia, New York, United States

Feel free to contact me at mason2042 at gmail dot com

Friday, December 23, 2011

“1950’s Radio In Color: The Lost Photographs Of Deejay Tommy Edwards” by Christopher Kennedy (Kent State University Press)

I should mention right off the bat that the Tommy Edwards whose photographs of rock’n’roll, r&b, adult pop, and jazz artists are presented here is NOT the singer Tommy Edwards whose “It’s All In The Game” was a #1 hit in 1958. The Tommy Edwards under consideration here was a very popular and influential disc jockey in Cleveland during that same period, who later became known nationally for running a record store that advertised in the music magazines of the 60’s.

One of the reasons Cleveland established such a vaunted reputation as an influential music town in the 1950’s (which subsequently made it such a natural location for the Rock’n’Roll Hall of Fame, even long after its musical significance had dwindled) was the power of its disc jockeys to choose the “right” tunes to make into hits, their willingness to take chances on new sounds and small labels, and their ability to create tastes not just among their local listeners but among other members of the deejay fraternity throughout large chunks of the US. Keep in mind that this was a long-ago time when individual deejays were free to pick the music they played on the air, and were not bound to the dictates of Music/Program Directors, out-of-town consultants, tight playlists, prepackaged formats, automation and satellite broadcasting. The local DJ was king, and Cleveland spawned a number of Kings, from the daddy of them all, Allan Freed to local superstars such as Bill Randle and Tommy Edwards.

But Tommy Edwards didn’t simply spin records on-air. As with so many other DJ’s of the era, he played host to a number of young hopefuls who would arrive at radio stations hoping to be interviewed live on the air and get their record played on a major outlet. As with so many other DJ’s, he also hosted record hops, which might feature brief appearances by young hopefuls as well. Beyond that, however, Tommy Edwards had a hobby - photography. Thus, when artists showed up at the studio, he would take color photographs of most of them, then show many of these photos in slide-show format at the record hops he hosted, and mail copies of a few of then out to fans who paid a small fee to receive them. In doing so, he unwittingly documented the Cleveland radio comings and goings of a large number recording artists of the mid-to-late 50’s - big stars, total unknowns, and unknowns who - every so often - would eventually develop into stars.

These photographs disappeared from sight until quite recently, until rediscovered by Christopher Kennedy. Likewise, Kennedy managed to locate copies of Edwards’ hastily assembled newsletter, read mostly by people in the radio industry, in which the energetic DJ shared many of his thoughts, plugged the records he liked, discussed a number of shows and club dates occurring in Cleveland - all in brief, pithy sentences shoved together with little rhyme or reason. What Kennedy has done is reproduce dozens upon dozens of these marvelous pictures, nearly all unseen for decades - rockabillies, ballad singers, aspiring teen idols, actors attempting to exploit their fame by releasing records, and so on - one per page, then supplement it with an extremely readable text that’s every bit as valuable as the pictures.

Kennedy’s text is generally written as if he composing it at the time the pictures were being taken, though there are occasions when he is not averse to allowing himself the wisdom of hindsight, and will let us in on what became of these artists in the ensuing years. He will often insert relevant quotes from Edwards’ newsletter, in a bold typeface, so we don’t confuse it with Kennedy’s own contributions. In yet another typeface, he then shares (whenever possible; sadly, many artists have passed away in the intervening half-century since they were photographed) the thoughts and memories of many of the artists as they look back on their experiences in recent years (mostly 2008-2009).

So what have here is a multi-level pop-music-history package here - the photos, quotes from Edwards, text by Kennedy, modern-day quotes by the artists, all well-organized, beautifully printed, and logically edited. There are more lesser-known artists than major names here (though there ARE many of them also), as there have always, throughout pop music history, been more people who didn’t make it than there have been major names. It is both entertaining and invaluable to see them, learn about their small triumphs and greater failures, and hear what they have to say when looking back on their lives. Their photos are sometimes posed, but more often candid. Much can be learned by studying the subjects’ expressions, demeanor, even their wardrobe and jewelry. It seems clear that most of the artists liked Tommy Edwards as a result of their brief encounter. Perhaps more significantly, it is clear that Mr. Edwards liked and genuinely respected the great majority of the artists as well.

Sadly, Tommy Edwards. who consistently claimed he had nothing at all do with payola and refused to accept it at every opportunity, was nonetheless caught up in the wake of the pay-for-play scandals. The era of the local DJ who could choose his own music came to a close, when it was deemed somehow safer for consultants to choose what people would hear, and the Top 40 format came into existence, with pretty much the same music being played pretty much everywhere. Edwards was unable to find a job in radio, so went into the retail end of the record business. Now, thirty years after his death, we have this visually beautiful and historically invaluable coffee-table book to remember him and his era by. This one’s a gem.

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